Roland Emmerich takes a shot at telling the story of one of the most important battles in the history of the world, but it’s a tough story to tell.
The movie tries to narrate the story of the Battle of Midway. It starts shortly before WWII with the US Naval attache Edwin T. Layton (Patrick Wilson) discussing the possibility of war with Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa). The Admiral warns Layton that if the US tried to stop their oil supply, Japan would have to start a war. On December 7, 1941, this becomes prescient, with Japan bombing Pearl Harbor, something Layton tried to warn the White House about. The US enters WWII and Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) takes over command of the US Pacific Fleet, which is now greatly reduced by the Japanese attack.
In April 1942, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) leads a bombing raid on Tokyo that convinces the Japanese to try to solidify their position in the Coral Sea. Layton has cryptographers working around the clock under Commander Joseph Rochefort (Brennan Brown) to try and crack the Japanese code as to a crucial target known as AF, which they determine to be Midway. In preparation to ambush the Japanese, the US concentrates all of its aircraft carriers and battleships, expecting the Japanese to launch an attack on ground troops on June 4, 1942, which will leave them vulnerable to reprisal from the sea.
On the morning of June 4, 1942, the Japanese launch the attack. After the US fails to successfully hit any aircraft carriers from the ground, a US submarine, the USS Enterprise, locates the Japanese fleet, including all of its carriers, and attempts to torpedo them. They’re unsuccessful, and the Japanese command the battleship Arashi to stay behind and keep the sub pinned down so the fleet can escape. However, Commander C. Wade McClusky (Luke Evans), spots the Arashi and, on a hunch, follows it to the fleet. While the Japanese try to re-arm to fight the US Naval fleet, McClusky and Lt. Dick Best (Ed Skrein) manage to bomb the fleet, taking down two of the carriers, while other squadrons take down a third. Best manages to rearm and take another run and hits the last of Japan’s four carriers. With the Japanese fleet now in ruins, the US has essentially shifted the tide of the war in the Pacific.
The Battle of Midway was one of the most influential days in the history of the modern world. While the Japanese still had 8 aircraft carriers left after the battle, four more than the US Pacific Fleet, they lost almost half of the skilled maintenance workers in their navy. As the Japanese Navy focused more heavily on fewer, highly-trained individuals compared to the American Navy, this was a major loss that slowed the progress of the Japanese long enough for the US to finally start producing larger carriers in 1943. At that point, US Manufacturing and training just flat-out outpaced the numbers that the Japanese could produce. Moreover, it proved that the Japanese were not the unstoppable Naval force that they were viewed as at the time.
The problem is that this battle requires a LOT of explanation in order to drive home the significance and, well, that eats up time. It requires a lot of characters, which eats up storytelling. It doesn’t end the war, and the Japanese devastate the Americans after at Savo Island, so even though it seems happy, it doesn’t resolve a ton. That’s probably why the movie just never really finds its feet. It has to show so much and so many people and still make the actual battle look reasonable that it just can’t spend the time and energy to get us fully emotionally invested in anyone. Hell, it’s hard to say who exactly the movie is following because many of the people that we follow die during the film. I think it’s McClusky’s, Best’s, and Layton’s film, but that’s still at least 3 protagonists, one of whom barely sees the others, and there are at least a half-dozen deuteragonists and, of course, the antagonist Yamamoto. There are just too many moving parts in this movie, because it’s trying to tell the whole story of a major event.
There’s also the random subplot of the Doolittle Raid which eats up about 20 minutes and mostly seems to be there so that the ending can include a mention of how much the Japanese massacred the Chinese, probably because this movie was largely funded by a Chinese company. While the US mostly remembers all the stuff the Germans did, the Chinese remember how many people were massacred during Japan’s occupation of the country, and this movie is a less-than-subtle reminder for the audience.
Despite the fact that this is the most expensive independent film ever made, the effects aren’t always at their best. Roland Emmerich knows explosions, but it bothered me a lot that all the ships at Pearl Harbor were mostly empty during the initial bombing run. Not that I wanted to see a lot of people die, but it still made the scene ring false. When the actual battle happens, it looks good, but it’s also noticeable that most of the attack scenes tend to be very isolated and focused only on one attacker and a target for the purpose of budget.
The acting ranges from great (Wilson) to “clearly there for the money” (Harrelson) to bad (Skrein), and all of that is pretty standard for Roland Emmerich’s direction. Like I said, the plot’s super light on emotion and that meant that the acting needed to lift more weight and it doesn’t. There are also a few weird changes that I don’t quite get. For example, the movie accurately shows Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas) getting captured, but he’s killed by the Japanese tying him to an anchor and throwing him overboard. In real life, he was killed… by tying him to a water-filled kerosene can and throwing him overboard. That’s just a weird change that I honestly was annoyed by, even though I’m probably the only one. There are a ton of little inaccuracies like that and they build up, because… Jesus, guys, just read a few books.
Overall, not a bad movie, but it’s trying to capture a really complicated moment in time and it makes it feel unfocused. The fact that the director doesn’t exactly pull out the best performances doesn’t help. I think more people need to know about Midway, but this is not the film for it.
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