Pacific Pageantry

“This is for Pearl!” shouts pilot Dick Best (Ed Skrein) before launching Midway’s final bomb that happens to hit an Imperial Sun dead center on the bow of a Japanese ship. Midway holds a lot of eye-rolling theatrics, but saves its most jingoistic for last.

Midway is made up of two things. In one, it’s Generals and Commanders in war rooms, debating tactics. In the other, it’s pilots diving toward Japanese carriers while AA fire skims their planes. There is a third thing – that’s the women in this story who sit at home, worrying, and portrayed as useless other than being emotional burdens.

Midway chooses a selective truth

This take on the naval conflict begins with Pearl Harbor, moves to the Dolittle Raid, and finally begins to stretch toward the title battle. Getting there requires extensive exposition and painfully exact explanatory dialog to keep things, people, and places in order. Lost in that mix is any authentic character; Skrein’s arrogant pilot routine works insofar as making Dick Best stand out among the generic roster. Comic relief comes from a ludicrous John Ford routine on Midway island, and eccentrics in the intelligence agency. Both diminish any serious or dramatic fire Midway hopes to build.

History is an odd thing though. Midway’s producers come from China, likely the most interesting tidbit about this retelling. Unlike the star-loaded 1976 version, this Midway makes sure to feature Chinese characters, suffering under Japanese rule. Like a number of Midway’s story threads, those moments add nothing other than nationalist vitriol, even when based on factual occupation. The home front avoids any depiction of Japanese interment camps; Midway chooses a selective truth. A final text scroll remembering Japanese forces rings hollow in context.

To tell Midway’s story, the Pearl Harbor strike isn’t inherently necessary on screen. This is from director Roland Emmerich (Godzilla), so the attack’s spectacle undoubtedly drew him toward this feature. Michael Bay blew up Pearl Harbor in the early ’00s. So will Emmerich here in the teens.

Aerial attacks turn ponderous and repetitive, like all of Midway’s action. Planes turn toward the camera to make a run, the camera shifts behind to show flak coming near, and either the hero blasts their target or the bit player goes down. The artificial CG combat never looks believable, straining credibility by refusing to acknowledge physics. It’s also visibly clear that not a moment in Midway was shot on actual water.

Unsurprisingly, the focus is entirely American, with short glimpses at Japan’s forces. Mostly, that comes in the final act, depicting an arrogance among Imperial commanders, upping stakes against US pilots. Earlier dialog notes the Japanese have better weapons and more numbers, creating an underdog story. Likely, that’s where (and why) Pearl Harbor fits too, enough to put the heroes on uncertain ground, even with the conclusion known. The shooting gallery wants that fist-pumping, IV drip of wartime Americana. If nothing else, that’s what Midway provides.

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Midway is far too hollow a film to depict such a critical point in World War II’s Pacific front.

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