Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Midway’ on HBO, Roland Emmerich’s CG-Explosion Homage to a Handful of World War II Heroes

by 24USATVJuly 5, 2020, 3:40 a.m. 26
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In celebration of Independence Day, HBO debuted Midway, the action-packed dramatization of a crucial World War II battle, directed by the guy behind, um, Independence Day. Question: is there anyone who really loves Roland Emmerich’s films, which consist primarily of CG-addled large-scale-disaster blockbusters such as 2012, The Day After Tomorrow and the indefensibly lifeless Godzilla reboot? Some hate them; most accept them with a shrug and write them off as flimsy escapism. So we’ll see how he does with the German director’s display of rah-rah American patriotism.

‘MIDWAY’: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

The Gist: Dec., 1937. Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsusushi Toyokawa) levies a threat at U.S. intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson): Threaten our oil reserves, and we will attack. Almost exactly four years later, you damn well know what happens: The Japanese bomb the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. America is officially at war. A series of key small missions ensued, but the big one would occur in June, 1942, when U.S. intel guys figured out the Japanese were mucking around in the Midway Atoll, and organized a surprise strike against the bad guys’ naval fleet.

There were some guys involved in this. Some were higher-ups, e.g., Layton, who works to overcome his intel failures at Pearl Harbor, and powwows with Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson in a distracting shock-white hairpiece) to suss out the Japanese navy’s probable plans. William “Bull” Halsey (Dennis Quaid) commands an aircraft carrier full of brave boys ready to pilot planes and guide submarines and launch torpedoes and man machine guns and drop bombs and generally kick some Japanese ass.

Key among the lower-downs is Dick Best (Ed Skrein), a hothead pilot who flies like he don’t care if’n he lives or dies, possibly because his best buddy was murdered at Pearl Harbor; Dick has a wife (Mandy Moore) and daughter at home, worrying and fretting. He gradually moves up the ranks, as does his commander, Wade McClusky (Luke Evans). Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas) shows crazy bravery in battle and jumps from deckside to cockpit gunner. Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) leads a raid on Tokyo that results in a crash landing in China. What are the chances all these guys will live through this harrowing battle? Never tell me the odds.

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Well, you’ve got the 1976 Midway with its cast of nobodies, including Heston, Fonda, Coburn and Mifune; and the sequences of Japanese war strategists rip a page from Tora! Tora! Tora!.

But the real reference point is more obvious. Emmerich directing a movie about the Battle of Midway is like Michael Bay making one about the attack on Pearl Har… oh. Right. Well, in Emmerich’s defense, directors with little sense of taste or decorum at least should stick with dramatizations of events that are more triumph than tragedy.

Performance Worth Watching: Has Emmerich ever allowed any cast member to fight through his very expensive displays of visual effects and show some humanity with any level of depth or nuance? Nope. Not yet.

Memorable Dialogue: Take your pick of these generic quotes by generic characters: “GOD DAMMIT, DICK BEST.” “GOD BLESS THOSE BOYS.” “YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A HERO, NOW’S YOUR CHANCE.” “THE HELL WITH IT — FOLLOW ME, BOYS!”

Our Take: Midway is an exhaustingly average movie, from its adherence to the broader facts of history to its solid performances to its not always entirely phony CGI battle sequences. Emmerich crams in a bunch of stuff, keeping the pace brisk for 138 minutes. It includes everything we expect from cornball rah-rah war movies: Sequences of divebombing pilots gritting their teeth as they jockey the control stick. Lulls for strategic debriefings or check-ins with the homefront where furrowed-brow women fix sandwiches for their stressed-out fellas. Go-get-’em speeches. So so many go-get-’em speeches. And wowsers mega-scale shots of smoke-caked, zinging-artillery, explosion-heavy battle peppered with the usual exhortations: “INCOMING,” “GET ’EM OFF MY TAIL,” “THIS ONE’S FOR PEARL,” co-pilots shouting altimeter readings, etc.

Midway is exactly the kind of movie in which a Japanese commander says, “WE WILL CRUSH THEM” milliseconds before the roar of unexpected American fighter planes gets clearer and closer — a cliche that doesn’t succeed in rousing us to cheer like Emmerich hopes. The film doesn’t quite pass off the mass death of the Japanese as entertainment, so its jingoism is muted a little, and that might be the best compliment I can levy at it.

It holds together somewhat competently, although Emmerich and screenwriter Wes Tooke shorthand details about whys and wheres; the narrative gives us a bunch of subtitles telling us how many miles this place is from another place without ever bothering to properly orient us. It chops along — the Doolittle-led raid sequence feels tossed in for no logical reason — adequately and repetitively, more focused on spectacles of bravery spiked with bad dialogue delivered via Quaid’s cartoonish frogthroat, Lucas’ generic hoo-rah-isms and Skrein’s gun-chompin’ Joisey no-baloney tone. There’s no real depth to these characters, who are all based on real war heroes. Maybe they deserve better. But this maddeningly average film does just enough justice to them without really elevating their heroism to a profound level. It tells us their names, but doesn’t compel us to remember them.

Our Call: SKIP IT. Just because a movie is thoroughly watchable doesn’t mean it’s particularly good.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.

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