Director Roland Emmerich has always been hit and miss, and admittedly most of his best movies were earlier in his career, but he's definitely made some good films, too.
'Independence Day' and 'White House Down' were both excellent. 'Universal Soldier' and 'Stargate' were alright as well. And while a lot of people talked shit about it, I thought '10,000 BC' was dumb fun. Okay, '2012' and 'Independence Day: Resurgence' sucked terribly, but I hadn't lost faith in him... until now.
The battles of Dunkirk (explored recently by Christopher Nolan) and Midway were both moments in WWII that, had things gone differently, would have changed the course of history. Midway, in particular, had every possibility of resulting in the elimination of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. That's all the story that's necessary - there's no need for invented romances, personal scores to settle or spiritual doubts after Pearl Harbour, just the events as they unfolded. Emmerich being Emmerich, however, completely covers that up with sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Dick Best (Ed Skrein, 'Alita: Battle Angel', 'If Beale Street Could Talk') is a hotshot dive bomber pilot stationed on the carrier USS Enterprise whose gift for cheating death rarely extends to his wingmen, putting him in conflict with the equally good-looking squadron commander Wade McClusky (Luke Evans, 'Angel of Mine'). "You wanna keep flyin'? I suggest you knock off that cowboy bullshit!", McClusky drawls (both characters are played by British actors using marble-mouthed American accents). These men are real historical figures, as are almost all of the characters in 'Midway', which also draws inspiration from 1970's 'Tora! Tora! Tora!' (that's good!) and 2001's 'Pearl Harbour' (that's bad!).
'Midway' begins in Japan in 1937, at a formal dinner where the Japanese-speaking American naval attaché Edwin T. Layton (Patrick Wilson, 'Aquaman', 'Annabelle Comes Home') and the Harvard-educated Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa, 'Flea-picking Samurai') sneak away for some loaded dialogue that hints at the coming war, before jumping forward to the attack on Pearl Harbour, which gives Yamamoto a chance to intone, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and filled it with a terrible resolve" (a line wholly invented by 'Tora! Tora! Tora!' screenwriter Larry Forrester).
So begins a tenuously connected series of action set pieces (and less interesting quieter moments) that involve not only the flyboys on the USS Enterprise but also the likes of Layton, Yamamoto, the codebreaker Joseph Rochefort (Brennan Brown), and even the director John Ford (Geoffrey Blake), as he films his seminal documentary 'The Battle Of Midway'. Woody Harrelson pops up as Admiral Chester Nimitz, wearing an unconvincing wig and spouting lines like, "I don't care if he consults coffee grounds while doing the boogie-woogie, as long as the intel is good."
Elsewhere, Vice Admiral "Bull" Halsey (Dennis Quaid), a key figure in the Pacific naval theatre, is shown struggling with a rash on his neck, which led him to spend the Battle of Midway in a hospital. There are some brief appearances by the B-25 bomber group commander James Doolittle - I winced when I saw that he was played by Aaron Eckhart. Is Eckhart a major jerk in real life? This was his first theatrical release since 2016 and 'Midway' was the best that his agent could do?
Unfortunately, the computer effects in 'Midway' look cheap, flat and ugly at times, to the extent that I wondered whether a single prop was real. Did Nick Jonas even grow a real moustache? Or was that done in post-production, too?
The script is awful - it's riddled with clichés and one-liners and unlikable characters. Instead of focusing on one interesting story, it tries to cover everything: too many characters, too many battles, too many useless scenes.
'Midway' largely rests on its director's competence at blowing shit up and thunderous overkill. While his blockbuster styling never approaches the artfulness or tension of Nolan's 'Dunkirk' or '1917' by Sam Mendes, Emmerich does have a talent for breathtaking scale. His depiction of naval warfare feels appropriately huge, to the extent that this film often feels like it has more in common with Guillermo del Toro's 'Pacific Rim' (or it's China-funded cheap-o sequel, 'Pacific Rim: Uprising').
Unfortunately, the computer effects in 'Midway' look cheap, flat and ugly most of the time, to the extent that I wondered whether a single prop was real. Did Nick Jonas (who plays Aviation Machinist's Mate Bruno Gaido) even grow a real moustache? Or was that done in post-production, too? Emmerich uses live actors, but only the film's most obviously tangible elements have any real-life substance. He doesn't just use CGI effects to fill in the gaps that reality can't; he uses them to create reality itself in a way that even the latest batch of 'Star Wars' films haven't dared. The effects don't enhance the sets and locations. They become the sets and locations.
There is a lack of any build-up of tension, yet there are so many battle scenes (and cuts during them) that I wasn't sure what was going on half of the time. The Battle of Midway was underway for around ten minutes before I even realised that it was happening and that it was the climax of the film. At this point, other than Ed Skrein and Luke Evans, I could barely remember who any of the other characters were.
War stories are only worth retelling in film if the filmmaker is doing something new and interesting with the genre. Otherwise, it's just a retread of 'Pearl Harbour', 'Hacksaw Ridge', 'Fury' or any of the dozen other thematically-empty, explosion-happy extravaganzas from the last ten years. There is a compelling, nuanced and affecting film to be made about Midway. This is not that film.