Roland Emmerich’s take on the critical naval battle lacks nuance but excels in providing scope and perspective
In 1942 the US government sent a confused John Ford to the seemingly idle island of Midway to shoot documentary footage; he was not briefed that a major battle would take place there shortly. The result was The Battle of Midway, featuring real battle footage captured under fire. Also “shot” was Ford, wounded by shrapnel.
Hollywood epic director extraordinaire Roland Emmerich took inspiration from Ford and his film, and even features the incident as a scene in his new depiction of the story of the Battle of Midway. It’s a bit odd, considering, that his method to crafting this story is pretty much the polar opposite approach. Ford’s film was captured under the truly realest of conditions, while Emmerich’s new take occupies a virtual world of CGI and soundstages, occasionally and unavoidably reminding the viewer there’s a sheen of artifice over this $100M production.
Wes Tooke’s screenplay ably juggles a top-to-bottom approach to analyzing the events leading up to the Battle, incorporating “characters”* at all levels — from top military strategists and commanding officers, down to the fighting crewmen and pilots (*I’m going to keep using the word “characters”, but understand that most of them are actual historical persons).
To its credit, the script also lays out the high-level strategic feinting and maneuvering, and the importance of Midway as a turning point in the war, in a way that’s pretty clear to understand, without feeling like naked exposition.
But what the film does best is, in a word, dogfights. The aerial battles are furious and dizzying, shot from dozens of angles and often putting the viewer in the cockpit. Most harrowing are the dive-bombing runs, in which the fighters dive directly at their targets, avoiding hails of heavy gunfire that get exponentially thicker and more accurate as they zoom closer.
The film centers on ace pilot Dick Best (Ed Skrein), and I’m perplexed at how the decision to cast Skrein as the emotional fulcrum of the film was made. I’m sure he’s a very lovely man, but cinematically he oozes smarmy bad guy energy, as perfectly utilized by his villains in Deadpool and Alita. This works alright when Midway’s script needs him to be a cocky daredevil pilot, but he struggles with the weighty dramatic material, perpetually smirking, chawing, and cocking an eyebrow — even when he’s surveying a tragedy or delivering an inspiring word of encouragement. Compared to, say, Ben Affleck’s charming performance of a similarly-scripted pilot character in Pearl Harbor, there’s just really no comparison.
Otherwise, the casting is spot on. Patrick Wilson is my favorite as Edwin Layton, the brilliant strategist who masterminds the battle based on his code-breakers’ intelligence, convincing Adm. Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) to enact the bold plan to turn the tide of the war. Luke Evans, Dennis Quaid, Aaron Eckhart and Nick Jonas ably fill out the American side of the story, though at times the film does seem content to rely on the likeability of its actors rather than invest in giving depth to their screen personas (on the other hand, this is a huge cast of historical persons so I’m not even sure that’s a fair criticism).
The Japanese side of the cast also features recognizable stars Jun Kunimura (Why Don’t You Play in Hell?), Tadanobu Asano (Ichi the Killer), and Etsushi Toyokawa (New Battles Without Honor and Humanity), and this telling is notably nonjudgmental to the Japanese side of the conflict.
Quick sidestep on that note, it’s a strangely tough movie to feel particularly “American” about, with its German director, English & Welsh actors as our two best pilots, and Chinese production companies. There’s nothing “wrong” with any of this per se (Roland Emmerich and Luke Evans are certainly among the very best at what they do), but it does represent a bit of a disconnect — this is an odd troupe for telling the story of a great American naval victory.
Oddly, the most prominent feeling I had while watching the film was a reinvigorated interest in the subject matter, namely a desire to revisit both the 1976 film about the battle (also called Midway), and Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, the events of which comprise Midway’s first half. After finishing the film, I got sucked down the rabbit hole of looking up the historical “characters” and seeing who played the same figures in those other movies (such matchups including Woody Harrelson/Henry Fonda, Dennis Quaid/Robert Mitchum, Aaron Eckhart/Alec Baldwin, Jake Weber/Glenn Ford, Etsushi Toyokawa/Toshiro Mifune/Mako, and so on).
When it comes down to it, I liked the film. Midway falls short of the incredible epic that I hoped for from Emmerich, and the blockbustery PG-13-ness certainly won’t be confused with Saving Private Ryan (at first glance, my wife even thought the Blu-ray case was a video game). But there’s absolutely room for these kinds of movies, especially for younger viewers, particularly because of my next point: not having read up much on the Battle of Midway, I actually learned a whole lot about the battle and its strategic importance and chronological placement in the history of the war, thanks to both the film and the disc’s offering of supplements.
Midway comes to 4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray and VOD from Lionsgate. My 4K copy came with a glossy, metallic slipcover.
The film looks great once you adjust to its heightened visual style. Much of the backdrops are CGI-generated and colors often skew toward a stylized (eg teal & orange) palette rather than a natural one, so given the “unreality” of what’s on the screen, I’m not sure if UHD offers much of an upgrade. On the other hand, this is a huge-scale war film with terrific aerial battles best enjoyed on the biggest screen possible, and the 4K disc is clearly the optimal way to enjoy that aspect of the movie.
Special Features and Extras
These extras are terrific, offering up an equal mix of featurettes focusing on both the film’s production and the historical explorations.
4K UHD / BLU-RAY / DIGITAL SPECIAL FEATURES
- Audio Commentary by Roland Emmerich
- “Getting It Right: The Making of Midway” (14:16)
Feeling that prior film versions of the story haven’t quite pulled off the story, the filmmakers discuss their intentions to craft an epic, historically reverent film.
- “The Men of Midway” (12:24)
Midway’s cast and filmmakers discuss the characters, most of whom were either real historical persons, or based closely on real people.
- “Roland Emmerich: Man on a Mission” (4:57)
Midway was a longtime passion project for Emmerich, who ended up creating it independently without the support of a major studio.
- “Turning Point: The Legacy of Midway”(15:00)
This is the kind of supplement that’s usually missing — a short documentary exploring the historical aspects of the film’s true story.
- “Joe Rochefort: Breaking the Japanese Code” (6:14)
Historians discuss Joseph John Rochefort, the cryptoanalyst whose intelligence propelled the US to victory at Midway.
- “We Met at Midway: Two Survivors Remember” (9:29)
Two surviving Midway veterans tell their stories.
- Theatrical Trailer (2:33)
- Also on the Blu-ray disc: Promotional trailers for Angel Has Fallen (2:08), Hacksaw Ridge (1:39), Knives Out (2:36), Rambo: Last Blood (1:38), and Semper Fi (2:06)
DIGITAL SPECIAL FEATURES
- Audio Commentary by Roland Emmerich
- “Getting It Right: The Making of Midway” Featurette
- “The Men of Midway” Featurette
- Theatrical Trailer
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All 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the Blu-ray disc (not 4K) with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.