Over the course of four days in June 1942, a vastly outnumbered American naval force pulled off a successful surprise attack on the Japanese Navy at a remote atoll known as Midway. Still smarting from the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States Navy marshaled their battered forces and set out to check the progress of the Japanese who were intent on extending their reach in the Pacific, hoping eventually to push American forces back, take Hawaii and invade the West Coast.
Roland Emmerich’s Midway is not simply a rousing adventure film but also a respectful tribute to the men who gave their lives during this decisive battle, marking a new sense of maturity to the director’s work. Having cut his teeth on sci-fi epics, most notably Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, the filmmaker is no stranger to big screen spectacles, having used CGI-effects from their infancy to render his expansive end-of-the-world scenarios. In a sense, these movies have all been a warm-up for Midway, as the visuals on display are as spectacular as anything that can be rendered with 0s and 1s. The surprise here is the human element, which is as genuine as the war scenes are manufactured, something that’s been absent in Emmerich’s previous efforts.
As scripted by Wes Tooke, the film covers a great deal of material in a short amount of time. From the attack on Pearl Harbor to Colonel James Doolittle’s raid on Japan to the attack on the Marshall Islands, Emmerich gives substantial background to what led to the decisive titular battle, introducing the key players along the way. With the navy in tatters, Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) is put in charge, knowing the task of rallying his troops will test his mettle; intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) faces an uphill battle convincing the brass that his hunches about Japan’s plans are true; Lieutenant Richard Best’s (Ed Skrein) hotshot ways in the pilot seat of his bomber serve as an inspiration to others but may ultimately lead to his demise; and Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) must justify his rank by getting in the cockpit to lead his men at a crucial time.
Figures such as Vice Admiral William Halsey (Dennis Quaid) and Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) appear but their time on screen is brief, each man obviously worthy of a feature film of his own. Every character we see was based on a real person, their actions recreated with a degree of accuracy that pays proper respect to their bravery and sacrifice. The reverence that’s paid throughout and as the end credits roll is the film’s strongest suit, justifying its expense and the effort of all involved.
As to the pyrotechnics, they are as spectacular as one can expect in this age of digital wizardry. Though it is far more seamless than the rear-projection process used in older films which put the stars of the day on the beaches of the Riviera or the streets of New York City, there’s a sense of artifice around the edges of some of the battle scenes that reminds the viewer that so much of what we are seeing is done in a massive warehouse before an expansive green screen.
No matter. Each era has its own brand of cinematic trickery to contend with and in the end all that matters is that the writing and acting in any given film is sincere enough to allow us to make the requisite suspension of disbelief. Emmerich manages to do this more times than not with Midway and in age of empty spectacle, that’s saying something.