From the filmmaker who gave us Independence Day, Godzilla (1998), The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC and 2012 comes… a balanced and historically accurate take on one of the most pivotal naval battles of World War II.
Yes, you read that right.
After Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour, people had every right to be wary of someone like Roland Emmerich – who has a similar reputation for big dumb bombast as Bay – making another war movie centred on the Pacific conflict between the United States and Japan. However, Midway, which is a long-time passion project of Emmerich, and one of the most expensive independent films ever made, is a surprisingly solid crowd-pleaser. Neither casual audiences nor history fundis will end up cringing in their seats the way they probably did with overblown, notoriously inaccurate Pearl Harbour.
Midway opens with a literally chilly 1937 prologue, that has Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) quietly discussing his concerns about the inevitability of war with American intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson). After that, the action jumps to 1942 and the Pearl Harbour attack. Midway, of course, centres on the aftermath of that devastating strike.
As an Emmerich movie, audiences may expect a high-emotion tale of revenge and unthinking, frothy-mouthed flag-waving. The film is nothing like that.
Midway shows both sides of its titular battle. And while characters remain sketched, they are treated as real human beings with diverse motivations such as loyalty, guilt, fear and pride. There are no black and white caricatures, no sinister shadowy Asians looming in silence over a map ala Pearl Harbour. So, on the one hand, you have pragmatic Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) explaining to Layton how essential it is for upcoming naval clashes to restore the morale of a shattered armed forces, and a similarly shaken nation. On the other, you witness Japanese naval commanders trying to manage their perilous position, with dwindling resources and an opponent that wasn’t as crippled as intended.
Midway depicts its historical figures as tactically minded and cool-headed men, who do things like stepping down when forced by command or injury. The closest thing the film has to a cocky, rule-breaking hero of the Hollywood mould is Ed Skrein as Lieutenant Dick Best. With one of the most substantial chunks of screen time, Best is a brilliant but opinionated pilot who steps into a leadership role as the crucial battle rolls around. However, Best struggles to maintain his defiant attitude once he has a squadron of young airmen reliant on him. Meanwhile, Wilson’s Layton is driven by the fact that he didn’t do enough to convince his superiors of the Pearl Harbour attack.
For the record, Midway benefits from a superb ensemble cast. It includes the likes of Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Mandy Moore, Nick Jonas and Dennis Quaid, who, at some point, transformed into Harrison Ford to play gruff Vice Admiral Halsey.
A further surprise is that Midway gets better as it progresses. Early dialogue is leaden with exposition, and Wilson’s Japanese accent is harakiri-worthy. However, the audience is encouraged to warm to these determined men, the history lesson aspect starts to feel less laboured and the high-stakes battle is a masterclass in tension. Repeatedly, the film focuses in on near-miss moments, where a difference of a few millimetres would have changed everything. From the audience’s perspective, it’s hold-your-breath, exhilarating stuff without ever giving in to jingoism.
Midway lags slightly towards the end but otherwise its 138-minute running time is a comfy fit for its subject matter. The end result is the most grown-up of Emmerich’s blockbusters, and a war movie that ranks among the most respectfully accurate ever made in regard to historical events and figures.
Midways opened in the US in November 2019 and hit South African cinemas on Christmas Day.
Last Updated: January 15, 2020