Less remembered than the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, Midway: America’s 1942 retaliation against the Japanese Empire, literally turned the tide of World War II. It showed America could compete with Japan. Roland Emmerich’s 2019 retelling of the event certainly isn’t the only film about the famed sea battle. Jack Smight’s 1976 offering starred Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, James Coburn, etc. also tried a star-studded reenactment—to greater effect, while this Midway features Patrick Wilson, Dennis Quaid, Aaron Eckhart, and Woody Harrelson to varying degrees. Though Emmerich delivers sharply constructed battles, the sprawling 138-minute epic: in its sporadic focus, makes Michael Bay’s slightly underrated thirst trap Pearl Harbor look like a masterpiece.
Like Smight’s retelling, Emmerich splits his story between two threads: one with Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) that opens with a dinner scene recalling Clint Eastwood’s masterful Letters from Iwo Jima (2006): once again, to lesser effect. The other, features a young talented hotshot pilot named Richard “Dick” Best (Ed Skrein) which supplies a steadier historical bearing to Emmerich’s Midway (the 1976 iteration took liberties by creating a fictional romance between two non-historical figures. While Best was indeed a real airman). However, the film’s believability quickly descends to frustratingly cartoonish ground.
The view into the Japanese power structure—through the eyes of Yamamoto—which enticingly examines discord among top commanders drifts away from the narrative tether: away from the Japanese’s fear of not landing a conclusive blow to America’s navy. Instead, Emmerich solely focuses on Best’s internal struggle to transition from top gun to leader. Skrein as Best possess a loose handle on the temperamental pilot, yet later discovers a dependable mid-flight.
Rushing at the over-caffeinated speed of an espresso shot, the film expands to not only include noteworthy figures like Admiral William “Bull” Halsey (Dennis Quaid) and Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson): both men tirelessly working to prevent another Pearl Harbor—but minor characters like Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas, with a horrifying East Coast accent) and Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart). Emmerich wants to display the war’s effect on everyone: Doolittle ultimately ditches after a bombing run over Japan and requires the assistance of Chinese nationals to evade capture. Events like the Chinese civilian death toll suffered at the hands of the Japanese, remains elusive until a post-credit card. He even includes John Ford (Geoffrey Blake): who came to the island to film the everyday lives of sailors for the Navy, but whose footage later morphed into his groundbreaking documentary The Battle of Midway (1942), among his ever-expanding cast who are never completely explored.
Also barely discovered is Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson, wretchedly miscast), a code breaker who warned the Navy about Pearl Harbor. One gets the sense that a whole film could be dedicated to Layton, and the whole system of code breaking: a cerebral take on Windtalkers (2002) possibly. Here, he and the rest of the code breakers are relegated as emblems of not repeating the past.
Where Emmerich provides unmitigated excitement is in the battle scenes. The reenactment of Pearl Harbor: which recalls Bay’s at points, exudes the fear and patriotism of that fateful day in oddly Blockbuster fashion. Many of the dog fights between Japanese Mitsubishi Zeros and the admittedly outdated American Douglas TBD Devastators are tightly composed, though certainly not at the highest level—mostly due to some more than questionable effects, but the sharp editing (especially with regards to sound) does provide explosive depth charges made to shake our adrenaline.
Unfortunately, these exciting defibrillators aren’t enough to shock us into Emmerich’s narrative. While pains are made to humble Best in the face of his domineering commander Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) and by expressing the pilot’s relationship with his supportive wife Anne (Mandy Moore) and their daughter, we never spend enough time with any of these threads or characters to build any connection to them or for the actors to impress. Midway ends up as a bombastic hollow retelling of America in one of its greatest moments.