Director Roland Emmerich manages to overcome enough self-inflicted battle wounds to achieve a narrow victory with his entertaining and respectful World War II epic “Midway.”
Best known for his bombastic blockbusters “Independence Day,” “Stargate” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” the German filmmaker maximizes his considerable skills at building exciting action sequences – putting audiences in the cockpit of dive-bombing fighter jets, inside the cramped confines of a submarine surrounded by depth charges and on the blazing decks of a bombed-out aircraft career – while struggling to craft a cohesive narrative, fully realized characters and authentic dialogue.
“Midway” dramatically (although rather bloodlessly, given the PG-13 rating) recreates Japan’s stunning Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor; skims through six months of fighting, struggling and strategizing; and then chronicles the titular four-day battle June 4-7, 1942, near Midway Atoll, where the U.S. Navy ambushed the attacking Japanese fleet and inflicted crippling damage on its aircraft carriers.
Like the 1976 film starring Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda and Toshiro Mifune, Emmerich’s “Midway” divides time between the U.S. and Japanese forces in telling the story of the decisive Pacific Theater battle, with Etsushi Toyokawa portraying Admiral Yamamoto, Tadanobu Asano as Rear Admiral Yamaguchi and Jun Kunimura as Vice Admiral Nagumo.
But the bulk of the screentime is spent with the real-life American heroes, including Ed Skrein as maverick fighter pilot Dick Best, Mandy Moore as his feisty wife, Patrick Wilson as canny intelligence officer Edwin Layton, Woody Harrelson as steely Admiral Chester Nimitz, Luke Evans as tenacious pilot Wade McClusky, Dennis Quaid as bulldoggish Vice Admiral Bull Halsey and Nick Jonas as fearless Aviation Machinist Mate Bruno Gaido.
Screenwriter Wes Tooke’s first feature script has some clunky, cartoonish dialogue, too often delivered in terrible Southern drawls. He and Emmerich can’t quite wrangle the sprawling story, especially struggling to make the plotlines about Hollywood director Glenn Ford filming in Midway during the battle and Medal of Honor recipient Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) leading his famous air raid on Japan and subsequently crashing in Japanese-occupied China fit into the action-packed narrative.
But action is what Emmerich does best, and to his credit, and “Midway” soars during the blood-pumping battle sequences. These dizzying scenes serve as a striking reminder that American forces won this crucial victory in planes that were little more than winged tin cans, which gutsy pilots had to maneuver past enemy fighters and through anti-aircraft fire and then plunge into steep dives to drop bombs with pinpoint accuracy on the decks of the Japanese carriers.
It was a job only for the bold and brave, and there are worse ways to spend the lead-up to Veterans Day than remembering the men who risked and sacrificed their lives doing that job.