‘Midway’ Review: The Rebirth Of The War Movie

Midway opens this weekend
out of 5

Films about World War II used to be a dime a dozen. Like, you could pay a dime and see two or three of them in an afternoon at the local theater. The worldwide conflict created so many opportunities for filmmakers to tell stories within the confines of the war that no stone was left unturned, it seems. Throughout the ’40s and ’50s, so many war films were made and some of the best actors in history have portrayed war heroes in the last seven decades. The new film Midway is a throwback to those golden years of war movies, but told with the technology of today. It creates one spectacle of a film that follows the formula of the stories that came before, and still succeeds in pulling the audience into the battle for a spectacular ride.

The Battle of Midway was arguably the most important naval battle in WWII. The U.S. — six months removed from the devastation at Pearl Harbor — needed a win badly, as Japan was exercising superiority in the Pacific. Without getting too deep into a history lesson here, U.S. intelligence figured out that Admiral Yamamoto and his fleet were making their way to the Midway atoll to eradicate a U.S. military base and Americans were ready this time. On June 4, 1942, the two sides began a clash that turned the tide of the war and led to ultimate victory for the U.S. three years later.

Edwin Layton reacts to the attack on Pearl Harbor

Midway opens in pre-war Japan with U.S. attache Ed Layton (Patrick Wilson) talking to Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) about Japan’s interests in expanding their empire. The brief, but powerful scene hints sets up all that is to come, as the film then skips ahead to December 7, 1941, the day that has lived in infamy. The devastating morning attack on Pearl Harbor is presented here with all the shock and awe, as director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012) is able to bring to life images that most have ever seen in stock footage and still photographs.

The attack, as we know, brings the U.S. into the war, and the film focuses entirely on the Pacific Theater. The stellar cast is filled out with big names in roles both big and small. Ed Skrein (Deadpool) plays Dick Best, a hot shot pilot who wants nothing more than to punish the Japs for Pearl Harbor as he lost a friend (well, many friends) in the attack.

Dick and Anne say goodbye

Woody Harrelson plays Admiral Chester Nimitz, who is named commander of the Pacific effort after Pearl Harbor. It was Nimitz that pushed for Layton’s intelligence to be used in deciding when and where the Japanese fleet would attack again, and his trust of Layton and the naval intelligence team was the deciding factor in the Battle of Midway — and the war itself.

Nick Jonas, Darren Criss, Dennis Quad, and Luke Evans all play historical heroes of the battle, but in smaller roles. Aaron Eckhart plays James Doolittle, who is famous for his bombing raids, particularly on Tokyo itself prior to the events at Midway. The film brings that run into the fold for a brief scene, which shows the raid and the aftermath, but then gets back to the action at sea. Mandy Moore plays Dick Best’s wife, Anne Best, in a supporting role.

On the deck, pre-flight

The true star of Midway is the directing of Roland Emmerich, something I never thought I would write. The director of some of the biggest spectacle disaster films in history is right at home with a war film like this, and he never goes completely overboard and loses the human element like Michael Bay did with 2001’s Pearl Harbor. I would even argue that this is Roland Emmerich’s best film to date. The battle scenes are intense and the sound editing is out of this world.

War is never pretty, and yet Emmerich is known for creating beauty out of chaos. Whether it’s aliens destroying the White House, or a tsunami wiping out the half the country, this man has made his life about destruction, and yet the best parts of Midway are the smaller moments, particularly between Nimitz and Layton.

Nimitz plots the assault at Midway

The tag line says this movie is the “untold story,” and Layton’s steadfastness with his intelligence was just as vital as the brave men who lost their lives fighting in these battles. The script by Wes Tooke could have focused solely on the skirmishes and let Emmerich and his effects teams go to town, but by keeping this somewhat grounded on the human side, it makes Midway a better movie than it should have been.

Midway opens on the weekend preceding Veterans’ Day here in the U.S., and I can’t think of a better film to celebrate the national holiday. My dad lives 1,500 miles from me, and I would love nothing more than to take him to see this film, and I’m sure he would enjoy it. It has action, heroism, emotion, and eye-bleeding special effects, which all come together splendidly foe one of the better war films to come out in the last 20 years or so. If Saving Private Ryan is the definitive movie about the war in Europe, then Midway stakes its claim as the film for the naval battles in the Pacific. And it has earned those stripes.

Midway is rated PG-14 and is in theaters this weekend.

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