The old-fashioned big war movie returns with a vengeance.
On Sunday morning December 7th, 1941, the Japanese launched a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, crippling the U.S. Pacific Fleet and exposing the West Coast’s vulnerability to an invading force on American soil: the greatest intelligence failure in American history. Warning of the possibility but not taken seriously, intelligence officer Cmdr. Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) is paired up with Adm. Chester W. Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) to determine how best to allot waning U.S. resources. Following a U.S. retaliation led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) in April 1942 demonstrating an American willingness to take the war to Tokyo itself, intercepted transmissions suggest a new target in the Pacific… possibly Midway Island, which could become central to Japan capturing all of the Pacific. With doubts stateside over their intelligence assessment and only two operational aircraft carriers without battleship support, pilots like Lt. Dick Best (Ed Skrein) and Lieut. Comdr. Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) find themselves outmatched four-to-one against a superior force and no Plan B.
War movies are as much a part of Hollywood history as Westerns or gangster films, championing pride and patriotism on the battlefield viewed from the safety of theater seats. Films like Tora! Tora! Tora! and The Guns of Navarone predate modern epics that overly favor imaginary stories over history and a bit of good old-fashioned propaganda. It’s a rare thing, however, to put viewers in the pilots seats during a time when remote-controlled drones didn’t do our fighting for us and computer-assistance combat was the stuff of science fiction. Forget Top Gun and Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor; why haven’t modern filmmakers used the tools of today to recreate the chaos of war in a way to show modern audiences how insane and incredible these battles actually were?
The CGI-heavy recreations of Midway is a bit reminiscent of Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow, but this oddly seems to work in almost storybook kind of way. Reportedly securing a record-breaking $100 million in independent finances for this film, it may be director Roland Emmerich’s least Roland Emmerich-y film to date, sticking with factual timelines over sensationalism and championing history over a made-up Michael Bay love story (we’re looking at you, Pearl Harbor). Midway paints a bleak historic picture of how the balance of power in the world shifted in only six months, tempered with a necessary glimpse into the human cost and the courage of those facing overwhelming odds.
While the slant is toward “American Cowboy Diplomacy,” the film opens showing an unwillingness by some Japanese to engage in war with the U.S. at all, echoing the famously quoted line by Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto (played by Etsushi Toyokawa here): “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” While the accuracy of the quote remains ever in question (Pearl Harbor reportedly borrowed it from Tora! Tora! Tora!), it illustrates that everyone involved in war isn’t necessarily evil or even willing participants. At only 138 minutes, Midway covers the necessary bullet points over a six month campaign and how knowledge, skill, and a great deal of luck played out in a significant historical event that was considered unthinkable at the time.
Ed Skrein has a had a busy year between Midway, Alita: Battle Angel, and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, and it’s nice to see him as a good guy for once… even if he’s still playing a jerk. Casting Woody Harrelson as Adm. Nimitz seems a bit of a stretch, but Emmerich’s angle of championing the plot of Midway over any individual performance seems to resonate: fluffed history as the star of the show, and that’s never a bad thing.
Midway is rated PG-13 for sequences of war violence and related images, language, smoking, and Anchors Aweigh, my boys… Anchors Aweigh.
Three skull recommendation out of four
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