A turning point in the fight for control of the Pacific during World War II, the Battle Of Midway took place in 1942, just months after America was forced into action after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. And it’s a story that’s been told on the big screen several times before, most recently in 1976. That was a star studded production – Heston, Fonda, Coburn, Mitchum et al – with a score by no less than John Williams. Roland Emmerich’s Midway doesn’t have any of that.
Not that the director is a stranger to big scale action – think Independence Day, Godzilla, White House Down – but this is a project that’s been on his mind for years. Since the 1990s and maybe that’s part of its problem. That was the decade that gave us Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line and Memphis Belle, with Pearl Harbor just a whisker away in 2001. But in 2019, the subject matter of Midway looks out of step with today’s cinema – and, as a film, it’s close to being a complete anachronism.
Based on well documented event, the film starts with the attack on the US Navy base at Pearl Harbour and then follows the military’s development of an air and sea attack on the Japanese navy in the Midway group of islands, one intended to inflict severe damage on the enemy. It’s seen through the eyes of the pilots involved, the senior military and their Japanese equivalents. Inevitably, we find out at the end what happened to the main players in the story and, while it would have been rude not to, it almost looks as if Emmerich and his team had a list of war movie tropes and ticked them off as they went along. It must have been a long one, because the film is jammed with them, starting with the much-repeated line from Roosevelt’s speech announcing America’s entry into the war. “December 7th 1941. A date that will live in infamy.”
Midway isn’t just merely conventional. It has a narrative, dialogue and, worst of all, entire sequences that play out as if they were written and filmed in the year in which it’s set. 1942. The special effects don’t fare much better: it may be 2019 but there are times when they fail to rise above the ones from the 1976 movie. With the exception of a couple of air battles and some claustrophobic submarine moments, they’re definitely sub-par, with the actors looking like they were super-imposed over the top of action footage. Yes, really! The characterisation reduces the main leads to playing types – Ed Skrein’s rebellious pilot who constantly chews gum, Dennis Quaid screwing up his mouth to play the crusty Admiral Halsy – and even an attempt to appeal to a younger audience by including Nick Jonas in the cast doesn’t help. His wisecracking hero is yet another caricature in a long line.
In truth, there’s sadly little to recommend this, however way you cut it. In fact, some judicious cutting might have helped. That 2 hours 20 minutes running time is excessive, so the narrative follows a repetitive pattern, as do some of the battle sequences. Yet, curiously, there’s one story line that’s over before it’s begun with its central figure, played by Aaron Eckhart, on and off screen in the blink of an eye. It’s as if he popped in on his day off.
At the risk of giving yet another cliché an airing, they don’t make films like Midway any more. They did twenty years ago – and that’s where it belongs.
War, Action | Cert: 12A | Lionsgate | UK, 8 November 2019 | Dir. Roland Emmerich | Ed Skrein, Luke Evans, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Patrick Wilson, Mandy Moore, Nick Jonas, Aaron Eckhart.