Master of spectacle Roland Emmerich has turned to the Pacific theater for his latest high-tech extravaganza, though the material itself is a total throwback. Written by Wes Tooke, Emmerich’s “Midway” is a rah-rah retro slice of good old Greatest Generation celebration, in the style of “Pearl Harbor” or World War II-era pictures like “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” “The Purple Heart” and “Destination Tokyo.”
Driving home the clean-cut nostalgia are the character posters styled like classical Hollywood beauty shots, featuring the cast of fresh-faced young men who star as America’s bravest Navy heroes in the Battle of Midway, one of the most important naval battles in history.
Tooke and Emmerich have taken a great big bite of World War II history in “Midway.” It starts in 1937 with a diplomatic visit to Japan, progressing through the attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941 to the June 1942 Battle of Midway, pitting the United States against the Imperial Japanese Navy. It covers a fantastically wide breadth of information while hewing closely to tactical military details. And it unfurls the events leading up to and a full account of the thrilling air and sea battle, filled with incredible individual moments of bravery and skill.
The film shares the glory among almost every participant, from the daredevil dive-bombing pilots to the bookish codebreakers intercepting and interpreting Japanese messages. But the sheer amount of information “Midway” tries to convey is at the cost of its narrative impact. The film is filled with characters, with only a couple fleshed out in any real way, the rest just faces and sometimes names. The result is a movie about a dramatic battle that’s strangely bloodless and unemotional.
We follow hotshot pilot Dick Best (Ed Skrein) through the story, a man known to fly like “he doesn’t care if he comes home.” He loses his Naval Academy pal (Alexander Ludwig) in Pearl Harbor, which stokes his taste for revenge. Dick is ambitious, a family man, and he flies like a bat out of hell. Skrein is a capable enough actor, but there’s a sly element to him that makes him an odd choice to play this swaggering American hero. And he feels like a mismatch with Mandy Moore, as his wife.
Yet Dick is the only character that Tooke’s screenplay dives into. The rest are given short shrift, a handful of generic aphorisms rather than authentic dialogue. Aaron Eckhart and Nick Jonas are given two of the best real-life characters with the most dramatic stories, James Doolittle and Bruno Gaido, but their arcs carry no emotional weight. It all proceeds perfunctorily apace, hitting every well-worn war movie beat precisely.
The score by Harald Kloser and Thomas Wanker does more heavy lifting than the script. As the music swells heroically or solemn strings indicate a sad moment, it tells us how to feel in each moment, rather than emotion rising organically from involvement in the story.
Much of the film was shot here in Hawaii, serving as an appropriate backdrop. But in its combat scenes, “Midway” is a triumph. Though heavily enhanced by CGI, the action is rendered in crisp clarity and breathtaking immediacy, a direct view of the action from the dive-bomber’s cockpit, careening through smoke and bombs and anti-aircraft fire. The stakes of each choice the airmen make are clear and simple, making their acts of sheer bravery in the line of duty that much more poignant. But these moments are too few and far between in “Midway,” which is too preoccupied with the planes to pay tribute to the people in them.