Digital Effects Fight WWII More Than the Soldiers in ‘Midway’

Midway” thinks it’s a war movie when it’s more of an extended videogame. Even for director Roland Emmerich, who has made a career out of films where substance is an afterthought, this one feels curiously led more by the graphics than the humans. Some of it tries to revive a nostalgic form of Hollywood moviemaking where World War II is defined by melodrama and hyper-patriotism. If it had maintained that tone for its 2 hours and 20 minutes of run time it could have at least offered a different kind of escape.

The film opens a little before the war begins as Lt. Comm. Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) spends time in Japan where he catches a sense that the empire might soon be a threat to the United States. He’s proven right on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese do indeed attack Pearl Harbor. Following the shattering raid U.S. forces prepare to confront their new enemy on the Pacific. What follows is essentially a giant roster of historical figures who we will follow through big battle sequences. We meet Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson), who is made commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey (Dennis Quaid) who leads the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. Among the pilots getting ready to fight with the “Japs” are Lt. Comm. Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) and Lt. Richard ‘Dick’ Best (Ed Skrein), the required cowboy who could care less about the rules and flies however he wants. It becomes apparent that the next major clash between the U.S. and Japanese will be near the Midway Atoll. Both fleets of warships and fighter bombers prepare to battle with Japanese forces being led by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) and Read Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi (Tadanobu Asano). 

Recapping the plot of “Midway” can read like the listing of team players. This is appropriate considering the movie never rises above being anything more than an expensive, CGI display of two sides fighting. You will learn little about the politics or wider historical context of the U.S.-Japanese war, or WWII in general, if your history is shoddy you might not even realize who the president was at the time. Of course films are not meant to be teaching tools in the sense of a good book, but “Midway” never actually utilizes its historical basis to generate good drama, or artistry like Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.” The screenplay by Wes Tooke reduces everything and everyone to caricatures. Dialogue is so on the nose that when Patrick Wilson walks into a conference room amid the attack on Pearl Harbor someone points and shouts, “here is the man who warned us this would happen!” This is nothing compared to the writing of the female characters, such as Richard Best’s wife, Anne (Mandy Moore), whose sole purpose is to stand behind a fence and make sad eyes at her GI Joe. 

The film can’t be slammed as bias because both the American and Japanese characters receive the same kind of wooden writing. Japanese officials look up at American fighter planes and scoff that Americans aren’t brave enough to attempt suicide dives, then while a battleship sinks lines like “let us enjoy the moon together” are eloquently uttered by a captain going down with the ship. Maybe Emmerich is attempting to return to a simpler kind of filmmaking from decades ago, when war films didn’t concern themselves with political, historical or even personal dimensions. One side was always bad, the other good and bombs were dropped all around. Until now the most famous take on the Battle of Midway was the 1967 “Midway” starring Charleton Heston, made just as Hollywood entered a more cynical time. However the spark of a better movie in this new one appears through the representation of film director John Ford (Geoffrey Blake), who famously shot the battle and is here portrayed as a fearless, mad filmmaker willing to risk getting bombed as long as he gets a great angle. 

But Emmerich’s “Midway” has nothing to do with characters, they are the props for the film’s obsessive use of digital effects. Emmerich shamelessly dabbles in pure pop cinema. Once in a while he makes something guiltily enjoyable like “Independence Day” or “The Day After Tomorrow,” but he’s just as infamous for expensive snoozers like “2012” and “10,000 BC.” In his vision of World War II battles like Pearl Harbor have the texture of your average video game, with absurd shots of characters grappling machine guns like cartoon personas, not real people facing death and destruction. There’s no scope or breadth, just endless waves of CGI smoke, flames and airplanes that look ridiculously animated, particularly in wide angle shots. During the Midway battle itself it’s hard to keep track of what’s even going on, because all that matters is that things are exploding. It’s easy to miss that Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) gets captured and it might take a second viewing to realize Nick Jonas is even in the movie. 

There’s a temptation to wonder if Hollywood might finally be entering a zone of World War II fatigue. A subject with endlessly fascinating story avenues keeps leading big budget filmmakers for whatever reason to the same narratives. In a film like “Dunkirk” one senses the fear and unbearable tension of a battlefront, in “Midway” everyone is a hyper-testosterone personality and we get many shots of torpedoes whizzing through the water and clenched-jawed Japanese commanders outdoing the Americans in hyperbolic dialogue. 

 “Midway” ends with some endearing photos of the actual participants, with small facts about where they went after the war was over. It’s the best part of the film because we get better insights into who these men were. “Midway” forgets that conflicts involve nations and peoples, not just the big, loud machines.

Midway” opens Nov. 8 in theaters nationwide.