The sepia-tone logos are the first thing to tip you off that 2019’s “Midway” is the sort of war epic that could have been made in 1949, ’59 or ’69.
Minus the occasional profanities and an end-of-film acknowledgment of the bravery of Japanese soldiers, this is the sort of thing that the great John Ford- himself a minor character in “Midway” – would have made back in the day. It’s the sort of film that used to be a regular fixture on American movie-going calendars: a bloated, over-plotted war epic full of A-list actors, stunning action sequences and American jingoism.
The heroes and villains are still black and white even if the film isn’t. The dialogue is all patriotic speeches and quips in the face of intense danger.
It doesn’t surprise me in the least that “Midway”- which depicts one of the most decisive naval victories of World War II- was my dad’s favorite film of 2019. But, as someone who doesn’t believe patriotism and quality need to be mutually exclusive, I was left a little underwhelmed.
It is a bit surprising to see Roland Emmerich – the man behind “Independence Day” and “2012” – in the director’s chair until about 10 minutes in when he stages a remarkably explosion-heavy re-enactment of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
That’s the old bombastic action director coming out to play, and the battle scenes are the heart and soul of “Midway”. The scenes are CGI-heavy – a must since most of the aircraft and warships depicted have been long since destroyed or remodeled- and the digital aerial dogfights, carrier deck explosions and submarine torpedo attacks are at times quite thrilling.
Still, the heavy amount of digital effects leads to a curiously bloodless war movie. You never really feel the terror of the soldiers since the actors themselves aren’t in the heat of battle. It’s hard to be terrified in the face of a giant green screen.
That lack of humanity is a recurring problem in “Midway” – both in the battle scenes and the quieter moments.
Maybe we can chalk that up to the script by first-time film scriptwriter Wes Tooke, which tries to do too much by covering no less than five years of American military history. Yes, Pearl Harbor is here. So is Doolittle’s Raid. The titular battle doesn’t even start until 3/4 of the way through the picture.
Tooke has some background in television, and I almost think that medium would have been a better fit for his script. It would provide more time to stretch things out and, most importantly, develop characters.
As it is, the characters are as thin as the American accents used by British actors Ed Skrein and Luke Evans. A military title is not a defining character trait although Tooke apparently thinks otherwise.
The script leaves even the most talented actors adrift. Skrein and Patrick Wilson, the film’s leads, are, respectively, blandly handsome and handsomely bland. Dennis Quaid, as Admiral Halsey, growls so much I was afraid he was going to go full “Shaggy Dog.” Even Woody Harrelson’s charismatic twinkle can’t bring Tooke’s dialogue to life. And when Harrelson can’t help you, you’ve got a problem.
The presence of dozens of unrecognizable but very handsome actors in the supporting roles signals Emmerich’s intent. The performances, like the special effects, are purely cosmetic.
The score, by regular Emmerich contributors Thomas Wander and Harald Kloser, overcompensates for the lack of emotion to a point where you’ll want to shout “Enough already!” at your TV.
Tooke’s script, to its credit, stays close to the historical record and embellishes little. I imagine it will please history-lovers and dads everywhere.
But, when there’s not a single character you care about in a cast of dozens, that is a sign of bigger film-making problems. Emmerich has got the old war movie bombast down pat, but he displays little of the heart, the brains or the compassion.
So, yeah, “Midway” (rated PG-13 for sequences of war violence and related images, language and smoking) could have been better. But at least it’s never too early to start shopping for Father’s Day.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.