‘Midway’ Film Review: Impressive Visuals Go to War With Spotty Writing

Roland Emmerich is exactly the right filmmaker and the wrong one to tackle this tale of a pivotal WWII skirmish

Midway box office
Reiner Bajo/Lionsgate

Roland Emmerich is exactly the right and exactly the wrong filmmaker to make a movie about the Battle of Midway, one of the great turning points in World War II. Few filmmakers can match Emmerich’s eye for excess, and there’s no denying that he fills his film with breathtaking images of aerial action and naval warfare.

But like many of Emmerich’s movies, even the better ones, “Midway” loses sight of the humanity inside its vast vistas of devastation. It’s a giant film with a very small impact.

“Midway” opens with a few brief moments of quiet before, with an undeniably appropriate suddenness, Japan bombs Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Emmerich coats the screen in detailed destruction and sudden heroism, but he races through the day that lives in infamy in record time, with all the pomp of Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” and slightly less of the schmaltz.

It makes sense that “Midway” wouldn’t devote too much time to Pearl Harbor, not just because it’s called “Midway” but because there’s a heck of a lot to establish before the movie actually gets there. The script by Wes Tooke (“Colony”) is a fast-paced reenactment of the major bullet points leading up to the battle when, for the first time, America took the upper hand in the war in the Pacific.

It breezes through bombing runs, changes in leadership, tricky codebreaking and a heaping helping of hackneyed melodrama as quickly as possible, and even then it still takes an incredibly long time to get to the actual conflict of the film’s title.

Along the way we meet a cavalcade of recognizable Hollywood faces, like Woody Harrelson as an honorable Admiral Nimitz and Dennis Quaid as a hoarse and rash-ridden Vice Admiral Halsey, whose shingles get more screen time than most of the Japanese cast. Tadanobu Hasano (“Silence”) is put front and center as Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, but the film gives the most space to Patrick Wilson as Naval intelligence officer Edwin Layton and Ed Skrein as hot-shot flyboy Dick Best, who longs to stick it to the enemy with his big shiny plane, and who learns a thing or two about war before the movie is over.

Stick around, and you’ll see supporting turns and extended cameos by Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore and Darren Criss, but their casting has less to do with the size of their parts and more to do with communicating in shorthand that these are “important” figures in an epic film where it might otherwise be hard to tell who we have to keep track of. Say what you will about “Midway,” but it’s certainly an efficiently told production: you always know who’s who, what’s happening, where it’s happening, and why it’s important.

It may be best to think of “Midway” not as a modern blockbuster but a very old one, more in keeping with the tradition of 1927’s “Wings” than “Dunkirk.” Cinematographer Robby Baumgartner (“Blindspotting”) has an eye for framing which makes the film’s humdrum moments unusually striking and its epic battles look all the more huge. He captures all the material editor Adam Wolfe (“Independence Day: Resurgence”) would have needed to tell the whole story in total silence, with only a few dozen title cards to keep the character arcs alive and the events in their proper context.

If anything, that may have been preferable to the version of the film we actually have. As attractive as Emmerich’s filmmaking is on the surface, “Midway” is an astoundingly superficial production with stock characters who Hollywood left behind decades ago. The only hint that Emmerich is self-aware enough to recognize he’s working in outdated cinematic language is the amusing inclusion of filmmaker John Ford (shooting “The Battle of Midway” for the OSS) as a minor character, barking orders at his cameraman to film all the dog fights at the risk of life and limb.

There’s an undeniable nostalgia in these moments for films that treated war like a game with clear winners and losers, and if “Midway” had pushed harder to play like those films — instead of merely making us wish all the clunky dialogue was muted — it could have been a eye-popping, exciting throwback.

Instead, “Midway” is a frustratingly empty spectacle, with rudimentary history lessons competing with cheesy “Top Gun” machismo for our attention. The best members of the cast are either wasted or relegated to small, underwritten roles, leaving actors like Skrein to carry most of “Midway” on their shoulders. Skrein’s American accent never convinces, and although he has great chemistry whenever he bickers with Luke Evans, as fellow pilot Lt. Commander McClusky, that same intimacy is absent in his perfunctory and thankless marriage scenes with Moore.

There’s something in “Midway” that keeps the film from being a complete waste, and it has nothing to do with the cast or the history: It’s the visual effects, which aren’t just convincing but painstakingly presented for maximum visual impact. There are images of naval and aerial combat which are astoundingly framed and realized, to the extent that even the sound design — which you might imagine would be rather robust — can’t match it.

If Emmerich’s film had a screenplay to match its visual effects, or at least the wherewithal to embrace how corny its storytelling is, “Midway” could have gone all the way.