Pearl Harbour hangs over Midway in more ways than one.
The hugely consequential naval engagement between the US forces and Imperial Japanese Army near midway across the Pacific and the Pacific theatre moreover are largely missing from cinematic retellings of the Second World War. Frustrating to no end for those followers of history and film, as was Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour, the faults of which have been well documented, 19 years later American cinema has returned to the Pacific this time to tell Midway.
The battle and preceding engagements taking place (as depicted) in the months following the fallout from the surprise attack on the US naval base in Hawaii, usually this author would conclude any review with a caveat and/or recommendation as to whether to see a movie, but we’re going to do things a little differently. Usually commentary as regards the favourable and less favourable aspects of a picture, as with it’s varied qualities and detractions, would be relatively intermixed; not so when that which recommends and so deflates this picture stands in such stark contrast.
That furthering Midway constitutes little more than three tenths of this picture and we’ll deal with each percentage separately. Irrespective, this author would still recommend a trip to the cinema as that which the finished product excels at it does so exceptionally, moreover so for the rarity of seeing these particular events well rendered on the big screen and indeed where they should best be viewed; on as big a screen as possible.
As an aside, there will be casual reticence to see such films given audiences’ general disillusionment with the US military and narratives regarding American supremacy. The historical and modern contexts being patently distinct and simply not analogous, such a conflation would unreasonably have the effect (should the film be of quality) of impeding engagement with dramatic retellings of these narratives.
The recreations of the battle scenes, Midway in particular, are very, very good on a macro level. While the aerial dives into upward-seeking Imperial fire are numerously repeated, as they were mid-conflict, not one emerges unengaging given the stakes, consequences and practical objectives are very apparent. Same can be said for the naval manoeuvring, near-misses and clear emphasis on the limitations of the American aircrafts with (mostly) excellent effects to boot.
The opening sequence, briefly recounting the events of December 7, 1941, are handled much more tastefully than in Bay’s effort and do well to establish necessary grounding in the American mind-set. Too depicting the subsequent Doolittle Raid, while the ensuing events are given more breadth than in 2001 it must fairly be said that the historic, dramatic short-range aircraft carrier take-off, separate to the more restrained, effective outlining of the actual raid, was better handled by Bay.
The Imperial leadership’s mindset and perspective, to which we are given less insight than we are proffered as their opponents yet more than one might typically expect given like pictures, is too keenly engaging. This is especially as regards the depictions of Tamon Yamaguchi (Tadanobu Asano) and Yamamoto; portrayed with near-mythical effectiveness by Etsushi Toyokawa. The repetition of the famous Tora! Tora! Tora! ‘sleeping giant’ quote attributed to Yamamoto, likewise adopted in Pearl Harbour, appears to now be an essential (if welcome) part of any prominent American feature covering this territory.
Turning to the US side, Nick Jonas delivers the most compelling performance amidst his co-stars and the only resonant or indeed very memorable rendering of a personal storyline herein.
Lastly, and notably, the film is dedicated to both the American and Japanese personnel who served.
Now, the bad.
American-produced war pictures are routinely (and fairly) criticised for forgoing the contributions of other forces. While the words ‘Singapore,’ ‘Darwin’ or ‘Nauru’ frustratingly don’t feature amongst much else (beyond a map we keep glancing at), it’s much less of a fair criticism of Midway given (unlike this film’s lead casting) the overwhelming American contribution.
If you’re going to cast non-American actors in American roles, you either have to let them use their natural dialect (which is just fine) or make sure they can actually sound American. Midway’s arguable leads, Ed Skrein and Luke Evans, while having great jawlines are just not very good actors and a lot of this rests on their shoulders. Sounding like they’re from nowhere near Jersey, their personal storylines are no way near involving for the scripting treading tired ground from similar pictures and the performers doing nothing to lift it.
To be clear, this author appreciates that these are accounts of real circumstances and real persons which characterised many an experience in the Pacific. The issue is that the scripting and portrayals don’t offer us very significant insight particular to or deserving of these figures and their idiosyncrasies as we are proffered Dennis Quaid’s William ‘Bull’ Halsey alone, who regretfully gets comparatively little screen-time. Conversely, when good performers are permitted greater lengths to work with (Mandy Moore, Woody Harrelson), their dialogue is alike Skrein’s and Evans’ extremely generic.
Some of the most interesting American-centric internal conflict (and scripting) rests on Patrick Wilson’s Intelligence Officer Edwin Layton. Wilson, an eminently serviceable performer, reaches a height opposite the far better Brennan Brown as star codebreaker Joe Rochefort who, together with his more exceptional portrayal, somehow wasn’t offered more time in this movie.
The battle scenes too starve momentum when switching to the perspectives of these figures in-flight, not simply for the quality of the performances but the rendering of the cockpits being noticeably less effective than Director Roland Emmerich’s broader realisation of the battle sequences. The temper of the battles too unnecessarily shifts with one jingoistic intrusion, pertaining to the last American aerial bombardment, into what can otherwise be a marshalling and widely considered retelling. This account of events or something close to it may very well have happened, it’s just that the stark departure from this feature’s long-established, effectual tone draws you far out of the film into another, at this late stage unwelcomely more bombastic one.
Accomplished on a macro level but lacking in many details, when it comes to this story there’s good and there’s bad and it shows.
Midway is in cinemas now