Midway (***1/2) – The sea remembers its own

Midway – 2019

Director Roland Emmerich
Writer Wes Tooke
Starring Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Dennis Quaid, Woody Harrelson, Darren Criss, Jake Weber, Brennan Brown, Etsushi Toyokawa, Aaron Eckhart, Tadanobu Asano

There have been many films recounting the Battle of Midway, even more still covering World War II in general. It is a tradition around Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day that allows Americans to absorb the enormity of the task that being under fire in the name of our freedom. Hearing the perspective of a famous German director written who had listed this as a passion project for two decades is unique, to say the least.

Emmerich’s story is one he’s wanted to make from around the time of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. That film is…not good, and it’s reception and out of control budget pushed Emmerich to the side. Now, the effects shots being cheaper and somewhat easier to attain, Emmerich and screenwriter Tooke were able to narrow down a story that is simplistic, but good enough to give one an idea of some important people not mentioned in other takes on the story.

Primary among these names is Lieutenant Richard “Dick” Best, who managed to be the first American pilot to successfully bomb two Japanese carrier ships in one day. Portrayed here by Skrein as a cocky New Jersey native with many flying honors out of Annapolis. He, like many in the Navy, had close friends that were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor. His squadron, lead by Admiral Halsey (Quaid) and featuring Lt. Commander Wade McCluskey (Evans) of the USS Enterprise, play a key role in the development and execution of the battle.

Another heavily featured hero is Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton (Wilson). He’s credited as the man in military intelligence who knew the attack on Pearl Harbor was coming. This is blurted out awkwardly in the first act of the film by the commander as the attack is underway. He tries to get himself reassigned by the new commander, Nimitz (Harrelson). This request is denied and he becomes instrumental in determining the strategy and strength of the Japanese naval fleet in the crucial opening of the Pacific theater.

We’re made aware in broad strokes the reason for Japan’s attack on the U.S. as well as how it debilitated our strength on that part of the world. Emmerich tries with about 25% to give Japan it’s due as a noble adversary. It’s a tradition as old as the war itself, almost. Even with the inclusion of great actors like Toyokawa and Asono, and narrowing the scope for the film to primarily the titular battle, it is tough to feel like we’re learning as much about the Japanese perspective when we barely feel like we understand everything about the American side.

Still, it is easy to appreciate the attempt at nuance. Ultimately we understand in war (prior to the age of terrorism), the soldiers carry out orders as nobly as possible. It’s the commanders in chief whose motives should be questioned. That this happens only tangentially here is fine. The film is about a battle, not about how and why intelligence information is scuttled or ignored.

If for no other reason, this film is worth watching so we can learn about the valor of heroes who were ignored, particularly in the earlier version of the film with Fonda, Heston and Mifune. There is no mention of Best or Layton there. The effects scenes of attacks is alternatingly breathtaking and sometimes a little cartoony (just like the acting). Many of the big name actors like Harrelson, Eckhardt and Quaid feel like more than place holders. We get decent strokes of acting, enough so that we want to learn more about the historical figures they inhabit.

Ultimately, this is the point of the film. No matter what one thinks of Emmerich’s earlier films or his politics, he plays this one straight enough as to give the undereducated viewer a chance to be curious. I would never have known about Dick Best (and certainly wouldn’t have google searched him) had it not been for this film. Now I will be seeking information on the heroes formerly unsung.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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