There are two sides to director Roland Emmerich’s filmmaking career. He’s of course best known for his over-the-top catastrophe films. Big moneymakers including “Stargate,” “Godzilla,” “Independence Day,” and “The Day After Tomorrow.” Less known, and much less successful at the box office, are his talkier, character-driven films, including the sorely underappreciated “Anonymous” (about who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays) and “Stonewall,” about the late-1960s gay rights movement in New York (I don’t know a soul who saw it, and it closed before I could).
“Midway” is, at least stylewise, midway between those types of films. Telling the story of the Battle of Midway - an air and sea fight that took place in June 1942, pitting a small force of American Navy men against the much larger Imperial Japanese Navy - it has plenty of the expected Emmerich action.
But this time his eye-popping visual effects are grounded in reality, mostly involving American flyers dive-bombing the Japanese fleet and partaking in nail-biting aerial dogfights. The difference between this and other Emmerich action films is that he takes a good deal of time away from the excitement of battle and lets plenty of storytelling and character study shine through.
The film starts five years before that battle, when America, England and Japan were having discussions on how to keep the peace on the seas. But socio-economic policies involving American oil being kept from Japan caused tensions. A few years later, war broke out, but America remained neutral, at least until Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. That amazing and horrifying sequence is brought to the screen with Emmerich pulling out all the stops, but he quickly gets away from the shocking thrills by following it up with the attack’s grim and sobering aftermath of people finding bodies and losing friends.
Then Emmerich and his writer Wes Tooke take an unexpected turn in what at first seems to be a flag-waving, nationalistic attempt to make America the heroes and Japan the villains: They show the story from both sides, with intimate looks inside the command centers of American and Japanese forces. Then they take it a step further, by focusing not so much on the horrors of war, but on the difficulties, on the challenges, on the logistics and the gambles that each side had to take.
So, there’s talking time with dour Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) and blustery Vice Admiral Halsey (Dennis Quaid), as well as with Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) and (Rear Admiral Yamaguchi (Tadanobu Asano).
But in this film’s scheme of things, those important men are remanded to being background characters in the far more upfront stories of daring, close-to-reckless dive bomber Lieutenant Dick Best (Ed Skrein) and the brilliant but frustrated code breaker Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) who, through intelligence sources, predicted the attack on Pearl Harbor but was ignored, and is bracing himself to be ignored again when he predicts a Japanese attack on American forces based in the strategically located Midway islands.
The film works well as a history lesson, in that it provides dates of different events and battles (a proposed raid on Tokyo, the Battle of the Coral Sea), and strives to be clear on what and why things were happening. It’s about the American forces being saddled with impossible situations, caused by everything from bad weather to bad luck, as much as it’s about Japan’s belief that it was imperative to finish the job they started at Pearl Harbor: to completely destroy America’s fleet.
It’s also an insightful military study, taking in the similarities of both sides, including them meticulously setting traps for each other, as well as the differences: The Americans are brimming with bravado, the Japanese are just as brave, but they’re also equally concerned with concept of honor.
When the talking stops and the action comes barreling in, we are up in the air, right in the midst of it, ducking and dodging and gasping as gunners are trying to take each other out and pilots are dropping as close as possible to their targets before releasing their bombs. This is thrilling stuff, but it works just as well on an emotional level, by driving home the familiar notion that war is hell.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Wes Tooke; directed by Roland Emmerich
With Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid