The story begins in pre-war Tokyo, where Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) warns a brainy American Naval attaché (Patrick Wilson) that hostilities may be imminent. US commanders ignore this warning, and soon a Japanese carrier fleet chugs into Pearl Harbor. Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) takes charge of the decimated fleet, and resolves to avoid any future surprises. Meanwhile, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) leads a ballsy bombing raid into the heart of Japan. This attack boosts Allied morale, but leads to shattering reprisals on Chinese civilians.
Midway aims for The Longest Day by interspersing these scenes of growling, square-jawed commanders with the baby-faced men charged with carrying out their decisions. Hotshot Dick Best (Ed Skrein) flies every bombing run like it’s going to his last. Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) tries to balance Best’s daredevil attitude. Joseph Rochefort (Brennan Brown), a socially awkward codebreaker, must convince the admirals to commit thousands of lives based on instincts and guesses. Like so many other war movies, these characters get drawn so broadly that hardly any of them manage to make any impact.
The script doesn’t do the characters or the actors playing them any favors. Did I say the writing was clunky? The dialogue in Midway sounds like a B-26 with a wrench clattering in the engine. We jump from big moment to big moment, forcing the writers to wedge in expositional dialogue to keep us up to speed. Characters clumsily rattle off bullet points, like they’re reading out of an American history textbook. When American carriers arrive late to the Coral Sea, Admiral “Bull” Halsey notes glumly: “Only one hour late.” (Dennis Quaid) He’s speaking directly to the audience, filling us in on events the film has to speed past.
Another quibble: Midway gets loaded down with CGI that seems so polished and perfect, it undercuts a lot of the action. Director Roland Emmerich makes his movie crisp and bright, a move which only enhances the digitization. Throughout the movie, I never shed the fact that what I was watching wasn’t real.
Classics like Longest Day and Patton represent the gold-standard for cast-of-thousands WWII epics because of their intelligence and meticulous attention to detail. Midway can match them on the surface, but miss everything below. That’s a shame, because Harrelson and Quaid get perfectly cast as larger-than-life figures plunk into impossible situations. Wilson scores a few points as the bookish officer who’s stuck being smarter than his superiors. Midway was a turning point in history, and it needs more than this expensive one-cent production.
138 min. PG-13.