Review: Midway (2019)

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Directed by: Roland Emmerich

Runtime: 2hrs, 18mins

PG-13

Action, Drama, History

 

Midway plays like a greatest hits album of all the big Hollywood classic war films from the first “Midway” film to “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” to more recent films like “Dunkirk” and “Pearl Harbor.”

Somewhere in this movie there’s a Pearl Harbor movie; there’s a code breakers movie; there’s a movie about the higher-ups trying to figure out how to outplay their opponent in a costly wargame; there’s a film about young fighter pilots trying to overcome their fears; there’s a movie about how costly the war was for the Chinese, particularly the ones who helped downed American pilots; there’s a movie about submarine warfare; and, of course, there’s a movie about Midway. Most of these various stories have a scene for both the American and Japanese side.

As you can imagine, the more scattershot approach here makes many of the battles and emotional beats hit far less effectively than war films that maintain a higher level of focus on one event and a smaller cast of central characters. For time reasons, many of these “movies” inside Midway playout in just a scene or two, far too little time for most of them to have the impact they might have had otherwise.

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While all the characters are based on real people, few of them get enough screen time to make their individual storyline standout – or even to remember their name, as opposed to the name of the actor who played them. While I’ll likely remember a few of the primary cast members, there will inevitably come a time when I catch this movie on TV and realize I had totally forgotten that Aaron Eckhart, Luke Evans, Dennis Quaid, Nick Jonas and Keenan Johnson are in it. That’s a lot of characters to forget about.

Some may credit the filmmakers for sticking to history, and the figures the film follows, rather than getting sidetracked by fictionalized side stories – namely Pearl Harbor’s  romance film that uses the attack on Pearl Harbor as a backdrop rather than the subject. However, others will find the result is that few of the characters are well established enough for any of the emotional moments hit.

For instance, when one American gunner gets captured by Japanese forces, he allows himself to be drowned rather than give up vital information. On one hand, it’s tough to watch a character die, particularly in such a horrible way, but on the other, how much greater impact might the scene have had, had the film done its due diligence to established him as a likeable lead. And that goes without mentioning that the film completely forgets about the second American soldier there awaiting either the same fate, or betraying his country out of fear (and likely getting the same fate regardless). We never find out what happened to him.

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The one unique thing “Midway” offers is the other perspective. Where most war films concentrate on the American perspective, dealing with loss, making heroic sacrifices, and patriotic relishing in ultimate American victory. What few war films, outside of “Letters from Iwo Jima”  do is show the sadness and loss of the opposing forces. It’s not quite a two sided story, but the film does a pretty good job, especially later in the film, of showing the war as a calamity that forced people on both sides to take as many blows as they landed. Nearly every victory was balanced by the human cost on the other side.

There are a few moments where the film slows down just long enough to show some of the wives who hate that their husbands work so tirelessly, especially at something that may kill them at any moment. Otherwise the film runs at a fairly breakneck pace and rarely lets up. Had this film truly been modeled after the classic Hollywood war films that inspired it, it would have run over 3 hours and included an intermission. Instead, they manage to keep the runtime just over 2 hours. This is one of the few films that makes me think that somewhere there’s a cut that runs a good 30 to 40 minutes longer and is all the better for it.

But maybe the harshest criticism I can give the film is that it just isn’t very memorable. Few of the shots and set pieces standout in ways they do in other war films. Just thinking about “Dunkirk” or “Saving Private Ryan” conjures so many images and memorable scenes. “Midway” made me think of other, better films, and rarely anything else.

 

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