By: Jessica Goddard
Full disclosure: I am bad at watching war movies. I watch war movies out of some (likely misdirected) sense of duty – if actual human beings lived these horrors, I should be able to stomach cinematic recreations of them, is my thinking. But, I find it very hard to watch people die (which I’ve chosen to attribute to a smug overabundance of empathy) even if it’s only a performance. For this reason, I consider it unconvincing when critics say this-or-that war film is “bad,” since my philosophy tends to be that something affecting is fundamentally impossible to categorize in those terms.
Midway is shiny and clean and “very Hollywood”. Everyone is impossibly good-looking; a point reinforced when the epilogue pairs up the actors with photos of their real-life historical counterparts.
Yes, it is directed by Roland Emmerich of Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012, so none of this Capital-C Cinema comes as a surprise. Likewise it’s unsurprising the special effects that deliver the film’s aerial battles and exploding naval ships are believable and dignified.
The film aims to explain the sequence of events leading to full-blown war in the Pacific; with its namesake battle being the climax. Fair warning – the movie is advertised like an ensemble piece but many of the faces on the poster aren’t in it for very long.
Our proxy is dive bomber Richard “Dick” Best (Ed Skrein), who is both a talented and impulsive pilot, and whose best friend we watch die in the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor. We’re with Best as he flies, drops bombs, and becomes squadron commander in time for the Battle of Midway. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence officer Edwin T. Layton (Patrick Wilson) spends most of the film working with codebreakers to determine when and where the Japanese are planning to strike next, motivated in part by guilt over his inability to successfully prevent Pearl Harbor.
For its nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime, Midway is well-paced and doesn’t feel as long as it is. The stakes remain high, which is impressive considering we know where it’s going and how the story ends. The most unfortunate element is the shallow screenplay, which doesn’t seem to understand that historical war films and Marvel superhero movies have different needs. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t care. Either way, it’s not a great look.
Considering this runtime, the scenes with the main characters’ wives are unnecessary and less-than-credible. In typical fashion, we don’t really learn anything about them that isn’t a well-established stereotype. You will be astonished to discover Midway does not pass the Bechdel test.
The problem with this perfectly fine movie is that it was bound to get made eventually, especially with the last notable film about the Battle of Midway being from 1976. So, it’s not under much pressure to do more than establish a timeline and familiarize its audience with historical names. And it does so, but the storytelling isn’t there to elevate these facts to new, imaginative heights.
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Jessica Goddard: @TheJGod