As Roland Emmerich (the director of “Independence Day”) makes clear in his new film “Midway,” director John Ford was actually on the island during the famous World War II naval battle. Ford made a documentary about the 1942 fight between American pilots and the Japanese task force.
Then, too, there was an indifferent 1976 feature film about the events. Now, 77 years after, we are given this new movie. It is interesting, some of Emmerich’s best work. However, most viewers are going to think the film important only because it is about the turning point in the war.
Maybe that’s why some odd historic details from the narrative seem more important than did the characters and their individual actions. For example, did we remember that Admiral Bull Halsey had a rash, described in the film as shingles, that put him in the hospital during the days of battle?
Halsey is played by Dennis Quaid. Pacific naval commander Admiral Nimitz is played, a little less plausibly, by Woody Harrelson. Aaron Eckhart makes a very upright Jimmy Doolittle, whose Army Air Corps unit of bombers was “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” soon after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
Patrick Wilson plays Edward Layton, the Pearl code breaker who, according to this movie, used Navy musicians to decipher the enemy’s messages. The younger cast is a little less distinguished. The best of them is Englishman Ed Skrein (remember “About a Boy”?), who plays a hard-working and daring bomber pilot.
Emmerich’s strengths are his abilities to manage scope (and there is some here) and direct scenes of fiery battle action. No wonder he wanted to make a movie about this battle. There’s plenty of diving and shooting and blowing up, and it is stomach-tightening fun.
Thanks to good intelligence work, Nimitz figured the Japanese would be going after Midway, planning to benefit from damage at Pearl. But the enemy hadn’t sunk our aircraft carriers. Miracle quick rehab work on the Yorktown (which was apparently held together with duct tape and rusty coat hangers) gave our forces three carriers with which to ambush the attackers.
The most repeated story about the battle gets a slightly different telling here. American pilots are running out of fuel as they searched for the Japanese navy saw, and through a gap in the clouds, a destroyer hurrying along alone. They followed it.
And in a matter of a few hours, our pilots sank the task force’s four carriers, the Akagi, the Hiryu, the Kaga and the Soryu. The attacks on those ships and the limping crash landings on our carriers’ decks provide most of the opportunity for exciting action in the movie.
Perhaps the movie fails to make its less senior characters live because it is devoted to realism, and the cowboy pilots may well have been careful not to express their emotions. But the problem may be that Emmerich doesn’t do enough with the characters to give the actors much chance to differentiate themselves.
One of the Jonases and Luke Evans each have mustaches, and it would be easy to mix the two characters up. Skrein has been given gum to chew and a family pic to stick on his instrument panel. But he has gone beyond that a bit, making the character more gutsy, partly in contrast to his subordinate.
Poor Mandy Moore looks good here, but the wives’ business is all familiar stuff. And the cut outs to Japanese officers may confuse the viewer — which one of these guys was the moderate who didn’t want war? Most of the time, the enemy is not much humanized. They were not known for gracious treatment of captives.
Still, viewers will get a notion of the events of the battle, the quick time frame, the vastness of the sea and the harrowing nature of a dive bombing raid on a carrier in the middle of a battle group.
So while “Midway” may not seem like the definitive film about a famous military victory, it is a decent placeholder until something better is made. Ever see that Ford documentary?