Thursday, January 23, 2020

Midway (2019): A Review (Review #1340)

MIDWAY (2019)

At the surprisingly packed Midway screening I went to, the audience loved the film. The most I can say about this Midway is that I did not dislike it. It is not as horrible as perhaps some of its more vocal detractors have it, and it gets extra points for A) not being a remake of the 1976 version, and B) giving legendary director John Ford something of a cameo role.

However, Midway is far too long for the myriad of stories it is telling, as if it decided to slam in three war films into one bloated film.

After a pre-war scene between Japanese-speaking American intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) and English-speaking Japanese naval Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsuchi Toyokawa), we hop to December 7, 1941 and the attack on Pearl Harbor. While not at the actual attack, cocky shot-hot ace fighter pilot  Dick Best (Ed Skrein) wants to take the fight to the Japs, especially after learning that his best friend was among those killed.

Post-Pearl, Layton is still filled with guilt about not being forceful enough in his warnings on the Japanese, while Yamamoto realizes that Japan has 'awakened a sleeping giant'. Layton, fortunately, has the ear of Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson). Best, for his part, while still fighting with Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky (Luke Evans), has the tepid confidence of Vice Admiral William "Bull" Halsey (Dennis Quaid). Their ship, the Enterprise, is the launching pad for the retaliatory Doolittle Raid, commanded by Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart).

Finally, comes the actual Battle of Midway, a bitter and brutal battle that takes many American and Japanese lives, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

Image result for midway movieMy primary issue with Midway is its length, as so many of its problems flow from it. Whole films have been made about Pearl Harbor (From Here to Eternity, Pearl Harbor) and the Doolittle Raid (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo) that it is almost astonishing that screenwriter Wes Tooke opted to try and fit in both those stories along with the actual Battle of Midway itself.

This in turn causes a lot of actual character development to be lost. The connection between Best and his best friend simply isn't there because as far as I remember, we never see them interact. Worse, we get in the extended Pearl Harbor sequence a young sailor who barely manages to survive thanks to Best's best friend only to never see or hear from him after he does his info dump.

Sadly, this 'blink and you miss them' bit happens again and again. Once the Doolittle raid takes place, we see a little of how Doolittle found himself in occupied China and then Midway forgets about him completely until we learn what happened to him in the credits. If you don't know who John Ford is, you might be puzzled to see this man with his movie camera. You may be even more puzzled when you don't see or hear from him after he orders his cameraman to "Keep rolling!" once the battle begins.

The film is frankly too sprawling, narratively unfocused. It gives us only the most cursory information on the figures (cocky, angry, worried) that one would not be blamed if they thought Best, McCluskey or Layton were fictional. The fact that they were real-life figures seems all the more astonishing, given we learned next to nothing about them and hardly knew who they were.

Midway is also saddled with some weak performances. It may not be Skrein's fault that he looks almost emaciated, but he is flat to almost boring as our hero. He's given something of a backstory with him having a wife and daughter, but Skrein is unable to make Best a human being. Granted, part of that is due to the script, but Skrein did not give a good performance.

Image result for midway movieSame goes for Wilson, a generally good actor, who had a perpetual look of worry throughout Midway. Evans, who is a usually reliable actor even in such enjoyable trifles as Dracula Untold, had nothing to do other than play mild antagonist to our cocky Dick Best.

As a side note, while that was his real name, "Dick Best" sounds almost comical. Granted, again it is his real name, but given that we learn nothing about Lieutenant Best as a person, the name "Dick Best" just sounds peculiar.

Quaid seemed to be chewing scenery with glee as Bull Halsey, and almost appeared to play him as if he were still playing the main character in The Intruder. Harrelson came out of this the best as Nimitz, who had a calm and rational manner even when presented with genuinely eccentric figures such as codebreaker Joseph Rochefort (Brennan Brown). Rochefort working in his slippers and robe does not face the Admiral, but like a lot of characters real and fictional, he just pops in and is gone once he's not needed.

You have essentially cameos from Darren Criss and Nick Jonas that almost end up more distracting than display acting abilities from either of them. One spends more time asking "Is that Darren Criss and Nick Jonas" than seeing their performances, and one wonders if they won't suddenly break out into a duet.

Midway does do more to humanize the Japanese aspect, particularly with a sympathetic portrait of Admiral Yamamoto as a thoughtful man aware of the dangers the Americans posed, a singular voice against the vainglory of the Japanese High Command. Whether this portrayal of the nobility of the enemy is a good thing or not is up to the viewer. Only he or she will decide whether seeing the cautious and meditative Yamamoto contemplate the horrors of war or a young Japanese naval officer begging to go down with the ship alongside his commander only to be rebuffed due to young men not joining the old in death paints a rosy image.

To be fair director Roland Emmerich does have strong battle sequences, particularly in the actual Battle of Midway, that should entertain or at least keep the viewer from falling completely asleep.

Ultimately while not a horrible film, Midway would have done better to focus on Midway itself instead of trying to play at film cliches and throw in so much. A narrower focus to allow us to care and know about the real-life figures would have done Midway a world of good.


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