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‘Midway’ tries to fight the good fight

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The Battle of Midway is considered one of the major turning points in World War II. The victory by U.S. forces over the Japanese Navy prevented Japan from taking control of the Pacific Ocean and bringing devastation to America’s west coast. The United States was outnumbered and outgunned, but thanks to the bravery of the men in the fight and the brilliance of those plotting the course, they emerged victorious.

It’s an obvious choice to receive the cinematic treatment. Indeed, the battle was the namesake of a star-studded 1976 film. Now, over 40 years after that film and over 70 since the battle itself, moviegoers are getting another look at that historic fight on the big screen.

Too bad it isn’t a better movie.

Director Roland Emmerich, whose name has become a kind of shorthand for big-budget Hollywood films that are heavy on the explosions and light on the … everything else, brings us “Midway.” While he certainly understands the spectacle that comes with war movies, he doesn’t quite capture the subtler aspects of the story the way one might hope.

It’s not that the film is bad, per se – it’s just a bit heavy-handed, both in terms of the CGI battle scenes and the interpersonal relationships. To his credit, Emmerich has assembled a talented cast that is able to somewhat alleviate the issues with both his direction and Wes Tooke’s screenplay, lending the proceedings a depth that otherwise wouldn’t be there. The end result is a moviegoing experience that is fine, but no more than that.

It’s a story that warrants telling; it’s just too bad that it isn’t better told.

This story starts in the period just before WWII. Naval attache Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson, “In the Tall Grass”) is preparing to move on from his post in Japan. He has developed a relationship of mutual respect with Japanese officer Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa, “Paradise Next”), who warns Layton about what might be coming.

Just two years later – the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor. The attack thrusts the United States into a war in which they had thus far remained neutral. Chester Nimetz (Woody Harrelson, “Zombieland: Double Tap”) is enlisted to take command of the badly damaged Pacific Fleet; he asks that Layton refuse to allow his intelligence work to be discounted again.

As for those actually in the fight, there’s Dick Best (Ed Skrein, “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”), an ace pilot whose combination of skill and cockiness makes him one of the most admired men on his carrier. He’s out there with his Academy roommate, best friend and fellow pilot Clarence Dickinson (Luke Kleintank, “The Goldfinch”). Bomber squadron leader Wade McCluskey (Luke Evans, “Anna”) has his misgivings about Best, but begrudgingly accepts and admires him.

There are skirmishes and fights throughout, all building to the climactic battle – a battle in which the U.S. has the element of surprise thanks to the work done by Layton’s team of cryptologists, led by the eccentric genius of Joseph Rochefort (Brennan Brown, TV’s “The Man in the High Castle”). But even with that advantage, it will come down to the American forces being willing and able to overcome odds that are still stacked against them.

Hopefully, you already know how it turns out.

Watching “Midway” is an odd experience. Like much of Emmerich’s work, it feels very mid-1990s in terms of style and aesthetic – a strange fit for a story like this one. That said, there are stretches where Emmerich’s brand of relentless action escalation works pretty well, evoking the ever-spiraling chaos of warfare. Obviously, a movie about Midway needs to focus on the battles, and that’s where the director shines (though the computer-generated effects occasionally get to be a little much). It’s the other stuff, the human element and relationship dynamics, where the film comes up a bit short. Still, there’s plenty of spectacle here, a throwback vibe to the war movies of half-a-century ago; hell, the director John Ford appears, solidifying the connection to that bygone era.

(If nothing else, you have to admire the fortitude that went into just getting the damn thing made. Despite its nine-figure budget, this is not a studio film; Emmerich raised the money himself through investors, making this one of the biggest, costliest independent films ever made.)

As you might imagine, the cast for this movie is HUGE. For the most part, everyone does their best with what they’re given; the reality is that for a story of this scope, very few actors are going to get much room. Wilson is his usual solid self, representing aspects of warfare that take place away from the battlefield. Skrein is the closest thing this movie has to a lead, but even he is more of an ensemble player. Evans is good as well, as are folks like Kleintank and Brown. Harrelson is one of the bigger names in the cast, though others – like Dennis Quaid as William “Bull” Halsey and Aaron Eckhart as Jimmy Doolittle – turn up as well. We even have a couple of pop stars-turned-actors, with Nick Jonas and Mandy Moore in the mix (Jonas is surprisingly memorable).

“Midway” is a film with limitations, to be sure, but it isn’t necessarily defined by them. Turning an historic real-life battle into a big, broad popcorn epic might seem a strange choice, but who’s to say whether it is an incorrect one? If this movie gets people thinking about the sacrifices made by the brave men of Midway, then it’s time and money well spent.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 November 2019 07:46

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