Movie Review: “Midway” recreates an epic naval battle, with a lot of digital help

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The most shocking thing about “Midway” is how much this Roland “Independence Day/Stargate” Emmerch epic about one of history’s greatest naval battles is how much it gets right.

After seeing Emmerich’s botched history of the “Stonewall” gay rights riot and his “Anonymous” rewriting of who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, that’s a surprise.

Yes, the Japanese plotted the engagement after Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s (Aaron Eckhart) daring land-bombers-launched from aircraft carrier’s raid on Tokyo.

Yes, American cryptographers had broken enough of Japan’s “purple” code to figure out the attack was coming, and yes, they planted a clever ruse to determine where the attack was directed.

Yes, the Navy’s greatest fighting (carrier) admiral, Bull Halsey (Dennis Quaid), missed the battle due to a severe outbreak of shingles, which humiliated him no end.

Yes, legendary Western movie maker John Ford (Geoffrey Blake) was on the remote atoll, Midway Island, filming as the Japanese attacked.

Yes, the sole survivor, Ensign George Gay (Brandon Sklenar) of a first-wave attack on the Japanese fleet floated on a life jacket, hiding under a seat cushion in the middle of the fight.

Yes, one pilot dropped the bombs that sank two Japanese carriers that day in June of 1942. Nobody had to invent a character for Ben Affleck to play who was everywhere at once in “Pearl Harbor” (even in The Battle of Britain).

Yes, American torpedoes were mostly duds that first year of the war, something worth remembering in Military Industrial Complex-era America.

And yes, downed American airmen captured by the defeated Japanese during the battle were summarily executed at sea, something worth bringing up on our annual Wring Our Hands Over Hiroshima Day.

Emmerich brings his BIG EXPLOSIONS style to a subject that fits it, and gets impressive digital re-creations of air-to-air and planes-bombing-ships combat. The ships look right, even if they have the stock-still “Titanic” fakery that robs them of their scale, the sense of the enormous size and weight that was moving through the water.

All that digital animation, with actors acting (flying bombers, etc.) in front of green screens gives the combat scenes an unreal pallor, not wholly unlike “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.”

Established actors from Woody Harrelson, who lends a teensy twinkle to Admiral Nimitz, Patrick Wilson, earnest as Pacific intelligence chief Edwin Layton), Luke Evans as bomber pilot Wade McClusky, Ed Skrein as bomber pilot Dick Best, Mandy Moore as Best’s wife, Eckhart as Doolittle and Quaid as Halsey, make solid impressions.

But lesser knowns by the score flit across the screen with barely a thought, no matter how pivotal their character might be, and the obligatory pop star turned actor (Nick Jonas) slings a little swabbie swagger.

The Achilles Heel of this “Midway,” unlike the more melodramatic 1976 film starring Charlton Heston, is one of focus and scope, a sweeping film that sweeps up too much to digest, with lots of time for corny dialogue in the bargain.

Halsey: “I got this damn ITCH!”

Screenwriter Wes Tooke of TV’s “Colony” tumbles into the classic show-runner-turned-screenwriter trap, packing too much plot, entirely too much of the context, into a story that really should begin with Doolittle’s Raid and end with the emotional sinking of the lone American carrier to go down that day, after a heroic struggle to save her.

Perhaps showing the U.S.S. Lexington sinking in The Battle of the Coral Sea convinced Emmerich not to attempt it. That’s some of the least convincing digital imaging in the movie.

Tooke starts the picture in 1937, to give us an insipid white-gloved introduction to Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) and Layton (Wilson) at a British/American/Japanese naval dinner in Tokyo. His script takes us through the aftermath of Doolittle’s Raid, another sign of Hollywood’s efforts to reach the Chinese market and appease the Chinese government.

We don’t need to see “Pearl Harbor” over again. As the phrase of the day went, we “REMEMBER Pearl Harbor.” The gloom of that attack (less digitally convincing here than in “Pearl Harbor”) is best captured in a single line by a survivor. “See you at the next funeral.”

We know we’re going to hear Yamamoto’s flattering and prescient post-Pearl Harbor prophecy, “We have awakened a sleeping giant!”

Emmerich is plainly more at home with oversized explosions and crowding the screen with screeching planes and anti-aircraft bursts, damn the perspective. His staging and direction of every assembly, be it in a bar, an office, on a flight deck or in a pilots’ briefing, is static. The extras stand rigid waiting for the stars to finish their lines. These scenes don’t work, even as tableaux.

They left out the “forgotten” half of the battle, the Japanese invasion of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian Islands. But something had to go.

Overreaching and somewhat bloated? Sure.

But chalk it up to “diminished expectations” or the pleasant surprise of dashing back to the office to check this or that fact that I was SURE they’d gotten wrong, only to see it confirmed,bthis “Midway” isn’t the cut-rate “U.S.S. Indianapolis: Men of Courage” digital visuals, hammy acting and corny dialogue debacle it might have been.

“Not awful” is Emmerich’s victory, here.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of war violence and related images, language and smoking

Cast: Ed Skrein, Luke Evans, Mandy Moore, Patrick Wilson, Dennis Quaid, Woody Harrelson, Etsushi Toyokawa, Tadanobu Asano, Aaron Eckhart

Credits: Directed by Roland Emmerich, script by Wes Tooke. A Lionsgate release.

Running time: 2:18

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3 Responses to Movie Review: “Midway” recreates an epic naval battle, with a lot of digital help

  1. CJ says:

    “Yes, one pilot dropped the bombs that sank two Japanese carriers that day in June of 1944.”
    That should be 1942!

  2. CJ says:

    “Yes, one pilot dropped the bombs that sank two Japanese carriers that day in June of 1944.”
    Should be 1942.

  3. Quite right. Had the June 4 date in an earlier draft, conflated the numbers. Thanks.

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