One of MCC’s steadfast rules is that every film I see in theaters gets its own entry, for better or worse or in between. My wife Anne and I saw Roland Emmerich’s Midway on opening weekend because World War II history is among her greatest proficiencies. Theaters don’t screen as many WWII films as they used to back in ancient times, but when they do, we try to be there. For us they’re good excuses for am afternoon date, even when they’re not a good use of filmmaking funds or resources.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Once upon a time, Michael Bay’s frenetic, godawful Pearl Harbor turned December 7, 1941, A Day That Will Live In Infamy, into a half-hour hyperkinetic action spectacular grafted onto a tediously cheesy three-hour love triangle plus a couple of tacked-on sidebars about how Japan provoked America and lived to regret it. Our director Emmerich — whose sensibilities you may remember from such disaster flicks as Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 — kicks off Midway with a shorter, underfunded Pearl Harbor good-parts-only remake with all of Bay’s characters wisely murdered offscreen. That last part is neither shown nor implied, but it’s an integral fact in my Midway head-canon.
Once Japan has declared war on America, it’s military mobilizin’ time. A series of real-life events are then dramatized, mostly without expository segues, in more or less the original order in which they happened after Pearl Harbor as America faced a burning question: can Our Heroes figure out where Japan might strike next?
Hint: spoilers are in the film title.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Our main hero on Team America is real-life pilot Lieutenant Richard Best played by Ed Skrein, who made a fine villain as Ajax in Deadpool but whose toughest opponent here is his assigned New York tough-guy accent. Superior officers include Woody Harrelson in an Anderson Cooper wig as Admiral Chester Nimitz, who only utters one (1) Woody Harrelson-style joke line; eSurance spokesman Dennis Quaid snarling like a refined pirate as Vice Admiral Bull Halsey; and Luke Evans, killer of Smaug, as Lt. Commander Wade McClusky.
Meanwhile in diplomatic backrooms, PG-13 horror king Patrick Wilson travels with a measure of gravitas as Lt. Commander Edwin Layton. Though he hardly interacts with the rest of the cast, he carries the burden of the American intelligence community’s failure to prevent Pearl Harbor from happening. He takes the event and its casualties personally, and resolves to do better in getting ahead of the bad guys as quickly as possible before the Japanese present a bloody encore.
Also in the mix, though not much, is Aaron Eckhart as Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, who was previously played by Alec Baldwin in Pearl Harbor. Once again as with Bay’s rendition, we see Doolittle’s Raid transpire after Pearl Harbor, ending with Doolittle crash-landing in mainland China. Rather than cut that story short, Emmerich continues following Doolittle as he meets up with innocent villagers, reeling from Japan’s evil incursions into their significantly larger but fairly surprised nation. Thus do we learn the heartwarming story of how China helped an American in need, thus presumably earning Midway a red-carpet entrance into Chinese theaters.
Other soldiers engaged in the battlefields of sea and air include former boy-band idol Nick Jonas (the Jumanji series), Darren Criss (Glee), and Alexander Ludwig (Cato of District 2 from The Hunger Games). Squint harder and you might catch Mark Rolston, a.k.a. Drake from Aliens.
Japanese warriors include Peter Shinkoda (Daredevil, Falling Skies), Tadanobu Asano (Hogun from the Thor trilogy), and Hiro Kanagawa (Smallville, Legends of Tomorrow).
Rounding out the cast is Mandy Moore from NBC’s This Is Us as Lt. Best’s Concerned Wife.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Bay and Emmerich both follow up the Pearl Harbor attack with variations on the apocryphal Japanese utterance of regret, “We have awakened a sleeping giant,” from the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora!. Each film constructs its usage differently, but the implication is identical: perpetrating a brazen act of destruction upon Americans yields the same proportionate result as shooting John Wick’s dog. This. Means. WAR.
Beyond that, Midway is a feel-good account of patriotic heroism wrapped in EXPLOSIONS, timed for release around Veterans Day for maximum old-fashioned holiday impact, even though Hollywood rarely celebrates those days anymore, except maybe in one out of every ten Nicolas Cage Redbox releases.
Nitpicking? With a Roland Emmerich film you expect big, glaring, laughable flaws from beginning to end, rife for dissecting by a MST3K-driven crowd. Midway is not great, but it’s not as hilariously inept as his past concoctions. Sure, there’s brusque, macho dialogue. Yes, the characters are wafer-thin, defined only by their achievements or their sacrifices. Sadly the budget was roughly half what Emmerich used to be granted, most of which was spent on countless weightless dogfights that get repetitive after about 10-15 seconds, like watching someone else play Galaga. Whether in a true story or in science fiction, flooding a screen with relentless percussion and flying ships copied-and-pasted into every possible empty space loses entertainment value if all the ships are hollow vessels.
And yet…Emmerich hasn’t exactly made a so-bad-it’s-good popcorn film rife for nonstop mockery. I mean, any unpaid armchair comedian could mine it for silly bits here and there, but there’s not a full-on Emmerichean barrage of them. The plot movements and character exchanges are so straightforward and unadorned that the net result is no less watchable than a basic-cable nonfiction reenactment show. It would fit right into the History Channel’s schedule, or on one of its lesser spin-off channels that serve as filler in bundled subscription packages.
In fact, part of me wonders if American theaters were ever the primary target audience. Midway feels like educational programming, a wartime epic suitable for middle- and high-school viewing whenever history teachers need some classroom babysitter TV for a few days. It could work as exactly that considering the anachronisms and inaccuracies appear to be a pretty short list (so far), altogether minor compared to most Hollywood efforts at portraying or rewriting history. (‘sup, Richard Jewell?) Given how bare-bones the dialogue generally is, one wonders if that was likewise on purpose to make for easier subbing ‘n’ dubbing in overseas markets.
So what’s to like? In short, this wasn’t the bombastic failure I expected. Frankly, I was weirdly disappointed that it was not, in fact, the worst film I’ve seen this year. It’s still in the bottom half, barely cracking the Bottom 5, but its confident mediocrity doesn’t quite sink to the ocean floor like the Arizona did. if you just want a reassuring tale of America unambiguously winning at something with no morally murky areas, Midway is your kind of generic-brand OTC drug.
I can’t say it offered a full list of noteworthy parts to cheer on. Seasoned pros like Eckhart and Evans treat the material with professional respect and maintain their dignity as well as the dignity of the real-life heroes they played. Bonus points go to Brennan Brown (The Man in the High Castle) as codebreaker Joseph Rochefort, representing the token Wacky Scientist type that pops up in every Emmerich film for comic relief. I also appreciated the inclusion of Geoffrey Blake (FernGully, Forrest Gump) as filmmaker John Ford, who famously was at Midway with a small film crew, capturing live imagery of World War II — a few advance setups as well as dangerous You Are There battle footage when the Japanese arrived.
In fact, while I’m thinking about it: kids, if you’d like to learn more about the Battle of Midway, be sure to check out your local library for books on World War II (my wife could give you a reading list!), or you can watch Ford’s own short “The Battle of Midway” on Netflix with a subscription or on YouTube for free! The EXPLOSIONS are smaller, but at least they’re not fake CG.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene during the Midway end credits, but it’s nothing plot-related, just a musical number. At one point in the film there’s a party where a ballroom singer played by Ana Maria Lombo, in character as her own co-creation called Annie Trousseau (long story), is allowed to go on for a good minute or more, just as old films used to let singers perform entire numbers even when they had nothing to do with plot advancement.
Rather than a black screen, much of the end credits are accompanied by Trosseau, back on that stage and in period costume, doing a second song like an SNL musical guest. The number in question is “All or Nothing at All“, presumably Midway‘s hopeful submission for a token Best Original Song nomination at the Oscars. That’s been a fairly thin category in recent years, so it’s not an impossible dream.