I wasn’t sure what to expect when walking in to see Midway. On the one hand the critics haven’t been too kind to it, it currently sits at 44% on the Tomatometer over at Rotten Tomatoes, but on the other hand it’s a sprawling World War II epic in an era where those aren’t in fashion done by Roland Emmerich who isn’t exactly a critical darling.
I figured I’d give it a chance. As with Pearl Harbor back in 2001, I figured even if it was a turkey there’d be some nice visuals that brought the battle to life. After leaving the theater I can confidently state that Midway is a confused and messy spectacle that gets in its own way too much for that spectacle to pay off.
Let’s start with the good. I enjoyed the performances all around. Ed Skrein as Dick Best and Patrick Wilson as Edwin Layton were standouts, which is a good thing since the movie spends most of its runtime cutting back to them. Woody Harrelson was interesting as Nimitz, and Mandy Moore had me asking myself if that was actually her until the credits rolled.
Okay, so that’s out of the way. Onto the mess and the spectacle.
The biggest problem with the movie was that it was trying to tell too many stories in one film, and even the two and a half hour runtime wasn’t enough to cover everything. Characters are introduced in quick vignettes or frantic action sequences that switch so often that by the end of the movie I had trouble following who was who and why I was supposed to care about what they were doing.
Some of that overstuffing is justifiable. It’s a big story and one of those days that history turns on. There was a lot to cover. The unforgivable sin that Midway commits is that it spends too much time on things that really could’ve been dropped and the narrative would’ve been fine.
Everyone watching in the states knows what happened at Pearl Harbor. There are entire movies dedicated to that day alone. Did we really need it rehashed so people knew why America was at war with Japan?
The bits with Aaron Eckhart playing Jimmy Doolittle on his infamous raid were also interesting and pretty to look at, but it adds nothing to the overall plot. I get the feeling that the scenes of Doolittle landing in the Chinese countryside and witnessing Imperial Japan’s war crimes against the local population was shoehorned in because it was financed in large part by Chinese investors. It’s nice to see a major motion picture touching on Japanese war crimes, something that tends to get lost in the pop culture narrative of World War II, but it only adds to the bloat.
Of course we’re not coming to an Emmerich movie for well thought out characterization. His movies are all about the spectacle. Midway is a war movie with a healthy dose of action. If those action scenes were done well then it might’ve gone a long way towards saving the movie and, at the very least, making it a staple of high school history classes.
Unfortunately even the action is downright confusing. I enjoy reading nonfiction accounts of the war in the Pacific for fun. I’m familiar with what happened at Midway and how it went down. Even I had trouble following exactly what was going on once things really started going, and I imagine that’s only going to be worse for people coming in without much knowledge of what went on in the Pacific between Pearl Harbor getting bombed and the atomic bombs being dropped.
Finally there was a bit at the end that didn’t sit well for me. The movie ends with a dedication to the American and Japanese sailors who fought at Midway. I love modern Japan. I took three years of the language in school. I’ve been steeped in their pop culture just like every other millennial. To quote Marty McFly, all the best stuff comes from Japan.
Having said that, I take issue with the movie being dedicated to soldiers and sailors who were fighting on behalf of an authoritarian regime who did terrible things in China, on the islands they occupied, and to any soldier unlucky enough to be captured as a POW. It reads like Ryan’s tone deaf toast to the troops, all of them, in The Office, only in this case the cringe is real and I doubt anyone is laughing.
I went into Midway hoping it would be one of those movies that wasn’t really for the general public. The kind of war movie that adorns the shelves of dads and history buffs around the world that can only be appreciated by someone who is into seeing the dry nonfiction histories on their bookshelves being brought to life.
It wasn’t. There are some engaging performances and the usual amazing visual, but Midway is one of those movements where the sum total of its parts winds up a huge mess rather than an engaging viewing experience.