Midway (2019)

MIDWAY, the 2019 recreation of the pivotal 1942 sea battle, is both better and worse than the 1976 boner on the subject. The availability of CGI to magically simulate all the bygone ships and planes is a quantum improvement over the cheesy job Universal did back for the U.S. Bicentennial tribute, and the basic outline of events and strategies are rendered less confusing for the non-nonfictioners among you. But while firepower comes across, starpower charisma is AWOL, and the script is awful: poptart WW2 history simplified into modern day posturing designed for an audience whose sense of those crucial days comes via WW2 movies, especially the showy but lazy type inflicted on us in recent years. *

Directed by Roland Emmerich, written by Wes Tooke, the treatment avoids fictional subplots and sticks to chronological order, showcasing the attack on Pearl Harbor and kickback air raid actions in the Marshall Islands and the famous “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” led by Col. Jimmy Doolittle. These action segments set the template for the showpiece, the desperately needed American victory over the Japanese fleet. Admirals and other officers are given just enough screen time to deliver expository dialogue; more focus is placed on some of the Navy pilots. In particular, the daring Richard Best gets front & center, played with notably absent subtlety by Ed Skrein, erring by making him out to be an insubordinate hotshot (the writing and direction don’t help him, or do favors to any of the actors).

Woody Harrelson makes a game enough pass at Adm. Nimitz, ditto Dennis Quaid as Adm. Halsey. Patrick Wilson is a dud as Intel officer Edwin Layton, almost as colorless as he was playing Col. Travis in the remake of The Alamo. As Doolittle, Aaron Eckhart puts some juice into it: he’s about the only guy in the cast who looks comfortable in a uniform. The dialogue is rife with limpnoodle passages where the characters colorlessly or mock-grimly issue audience-informing statements about stuff they’d either (a) already be aware of, (b) would not be privy to, or (c) would get thrown in the brig for blurting it out. The music score, a dual job from Thomas Wander and Harold Kloser, overdoes it with obvious cues to assure you grasp the import.

Eckhart as Doolittle: best man in the cast

Credit where due: apart from all the wowing explosions, the movie does give a few moments of glory to legendary director John Ford (played by Geoffrey Blake) who filmed the Japanese air attack on Midway Island, getting wounded in the bargain. Long-overdue mention is also made of the quarter million Chinese civilians the Japanese Army slaughtered in response to the Doolittle Raid. All in, war flick fanciers and history buffs will appreciate the fiery special effects and lament the bollixed dramatics.

Production cost was $100,000,000, with maybe another $40,000,000 spent on advertising. Box office was not in the victory zone, just docking to port at $125,400,000. With Luke Evans, Mandy Moore, Etsushi Toyakawa, Jun Kunimura, Nick Jonas, Keean Johnson. 138 minutes.

 * With some notable exceptions, most of the good WW2-set films in recent years have come from Europe. Clint Eastwood did a fine job with his twin Iwo Jima stories and the TV miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific are exemplary. Of course the opener of Saving Private Ryan was stunning, and The Thin Red Line packed a punch. But notable flubs include Pearl Harbor, Miracle At St.Anna, U-571, and Windtalkers.

Despite its ponderous script and direction (and lame array of stolen clips from other movies), one aspect that worked in the 1976 Midway was that a number of those in the all-star cast (of good actors) had actually been in combat—Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, or served in one way another–Charlton Heston, James Coburn, Cliff Robertson—so they had some real-life gravitas going for them along with their personas. In the remake, other than Aaron Eckhart, most everyone looks somehow uncomfortable, and a few of the key players are Brits (Skrein, Evans), and their American accents are a wee shaky when it comes to putting the right emphasis on certain words and phrases. Aussies, absent from the casting call this time, are by far the best at pretending to be us (must be a colonial-frontier- with-extra-sunshine thing).

I have few of by-now tired standard issues with the wonder of CGI: those effects just need to be presented to best effect. Both Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima did a really effective job using them (sparingly).  The lovingly crafted model work from the old days (Sink The Bismarck, Tora! Tora! Tora! ) and the older days (the 40s) was really cool, but obviously wouldn’t sell today. The main complaint is what the director chooses to do with them. Midway and Pearl Harbor, beyond their script deficiencies, employ a “thrill-ride” aspect that is geared to modern tastes: while dazzling, it also is somewhat offensive in that it takes the horror of combat and gives it a gee-whiz varnish. Those gigantic battles were spectacular, to be sure, but one thing they decidedly were not was “fun”.

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