Roland Emmerich just can’t let go of the past. At first, it was the fact that he loved B-movie corniness so much that he kept blowing it up to massive scales. He got it right one time with Independence Day that somehow rode the line between The Day the Earth Stood Still and Star Wars, but never found that perfect balance between scale and skill again. The scale would always be there but the skill seemed either reused (The Day After Tomorrow, White House Down) or completely missing (Godzilla, 10,000 B.C., 2012). Recently though, he can’t seem to let go of his own movies. What makes Emmerich either beloved or dismissed is the consistency of his movie setups: huge cast of characters, epic scales of action or disaster, storylines that somehow bring all the characters together, splashes of sympathetic moments occurring with death scenes and a nice happy ending. If ol’ Roland keeps going back to his past, what better way to use that than an actual historical setting?
Just in time for Veteran’s Day, Midway tells the story of how the American military recovered from one of the most devastating blows in history and stepped up to the plate in World War II. December 7, 1941 was truly a day that lived in infamy because of all of the lives it impacted. One of which is Navy pilot Dick Best (Ed Skrein), who lost a former academy buddy in the air raid. Another one is Lt. Commander Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), a leader in naval intelligence trying to predict the next move of the Japanese. There’s also Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson), who’s been reassigned to Pearl Harbor to oversee the military’s next move. Meanwhile Lt. Commanders Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) and Eugene Lindsey (Darren Criss), who are trying to keep some order on their aircraft carrier if only that damned Dick would stop showboating. All of these military men, plus Dick’s wife (Mandy Moore), are stressing and strategizing over how to strike back against the Rising Sun, who are planning another decisive attack.
For a movie with a budget that barely touches the $100-million mark, Midway sure still has the look and grandiosity of a blockbuster war epic. Emmerich knows how to shoot glowing scenery at magic hour with warm sunlight blanketing the flying fighter planes (digital or otherwise) and the hailstorm of machine gun fire coming from the battleships during fight scenes. It’s no Saving Private Ryan, but Midway’s action has bits of drama and spectacle that reminds audiences why Emmerich still has big bucks backing his projects (even if they’re from Chinese financiers who enjoy Japan losing as a film narrative). Midway also shows a surprising bit of maturity from the director and the script by Wes Tooke (Colony). While it still has Emmerich’s cliches of multiple characters sharing too little screen time and overly-dramatic slow-motion death scenes, there’s no lowbrow humor or annoying attempts at jingoism. It’s a very straight-forward war movie that tries to focus more on the strategy of the military than other war pictures, though it still makes time for warmed-over melodrama and 1940s machismo. Though Emmerich has handled big casts before, here he seems to waste a lot of the high-profile actors he roped into this. The likes of Aaron Eckhart, Dennis Quaid and Nick Jonas are practically cameos in the movie with little dialogue and few scenes with the other top-billed actors. While it’s commendable that Emmerich cuts back to the Japanese military men often to give them some humility, they still don’t have enough time to be impactful to the story and grind the movie’s pace to a halt. The movie is so crowded that no one has a chance to make a real screen presence.
The only one who has any poise and handle on screen is Wilson, who carries himself like an old-time Hollywood leading man. There’s a disciplined and distinguished nature to Wilson’s performance, like a more relaxed Gregory Peck. You almost would rather watch a whole movie about Wilson’s suave demeanor discovering vital naval intelligence as he clearly has the charisma of a leading man, if only the movie had time for that. Instead, Midway chose to give Skrein the most screen time despite having one of the most laughable American accents a British actor has ever tried on film. Skrein is also obviously going for the old-timey American man’s man stature, but he doesn’t have enough strong dialogue to make his cool legitimate and his accent makes his performance border on parody. No one else in the cast has the presence to boost him either. Evans and Criss are nothing more than sticks in the mud for Skrein’s lackluster “hot shot,” even though both men likely have more charisma than Skrein puts on. Harrelson has no room to bring his laid-back charisma and doesn’t appear to be invested enough to give a sense of tension to his performance. Moore, who has the look of a golden-age movie starlet and has shown her knack for melodrama on This Is Us but, again, she has little to nothing to do here. She gets one scene of showing the emotional stress her character is under while her husband is at war, but it’s a break between the scenes of gunfire and torpedo dropping.
It’s nice to see Emmerich showing signs of maturity in his filmmaking and at the very least, Midway is more respectful to those involved in the incidents after Pearl Harbor than Michael Bay was when he tackled the actual Pearl Harbor 18 years ago. In the end though, Midway is more of a rough draft than a completed epic. What is has in respect and technical aspects, it’s lacking in energy and soul. It looks more like a big-budget PBS documentary than a war epic, informative but not all that interesting or exciting. There’s no sense of how vital the Battle of Midway was to the war and little to make the characters feel like the real people they’re standing in for. If Emmerich wants to keep living in the past, he should feel like he wants to instead of it being what he’s used to.