World War II film â check. Planes, ships and submarines â check. Imitation-Game-like setting and Pearl-Harbor-esque plot (minus the romance, perhaps) â check. Multiple characters, ensemble cast, guns, glory and action â check, check and check. By the look of it, Midway has all that it takes to pack home the knockout punch when it comes to being a watch-worthy war film. The problem, though, is that when expectations are this built up, disappointment is usually just around the corner.
The film portrays Americaâs entry into World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. To its credit, historical accuracy is Midwayâs strongpoint. It takes pains to detail the famous Doolittle Raid where army planes were launched off American aircraft carriers with great difficulty just so that America could pay Japan back by bombing Tokyo; it goes on to elaborate the tiny battles that America waged to repeal Japanese forces; it does not fall victim to false bravado and paints an authentic picture of how the Americans were the underdogs in the air and on sea when faced with an adversary whose skill, bravery and fighter planes were for all to see. The film then goes on to narrate the story of how good oleâ American code-breaking was used to finally defeat the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Midway isnât a bad film. Its problem, however, is it wants to be a serious movie even as it betrays flashes of caricature that accompany its plot and lead characters, albeit unintentionally.
Thereâs Ed Skrein playing legendary US Navy fighter pilot, Dick Best, whose dive-bombing tactics in the Pacific made him a war hero. Yet most of what was on display was Bestâs thick New Jersey accent and his penchant for chewing gum. His dive-bombing is relegated to a few facial-expression-driven acting while swooping in on the enemy.
Then, thereâs Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) whose exploits at deciphering Japanese code during the Pacific faceoff between America and Japan make him somewhat of an Americanized Alan Turing (ref: The Imitation Game), but whose intelligence inputs arenât regarded as credible enough for the government to act. Maybe itâs the glasses and mild manner that work against him, who knows?
Another caricature is Nick Jonas playing rear gunner Bruno Gaido, but whose moustache and I-want-to-be-a-war-hero-so-pay-attention-to-me vibe is a distraction beyond redemption. Strike three.
Sure, Woody Harrelson pulls off Navy Chief Chester W Nimitz to a degree of artistic ease that he is accustomed to. But you canât help but feel that even good acting in this film is somehow camouflaged by the presence of way too many characters essayed by a cast that fights for screen time, with individual story arcs to boot.
Midway just has a lot going on, and its victims are us, the audience. But it doesnât end there. We donât suffer having to follow these caricatures and their individual story arcs. We are also made to bear the ignominy of getting comfortable at the prospect of watching a good war movie, but having to endure several minutes of technicality.
Midwayâs heavily layered narrative, replete with code-breaking and ensuing naval strategy makes it quite verbose, which in turn results in fractured storytelling and a breakdown in continuity. At one point, the film makes you feel that you are jumping from one stage of the Pacific Theatre of World War II to another â obliged to keep pace with not just the multiple characters, but their respective combat groups, the strategies they employ, the deception at play, and multiple Japanese antagonists in their planes and boats. Way too much for one movie.
Ask any World War II geek and theyâll tell you that the secret to making a good movie on the war is the buildup to glory. In Saving Private Ryan, it was the lead up to the combat groupâs singular objective to find the man missing in action. In Pearl Harbor, the love and drama amid the attack formed the very foundation of the film, before it climaxes at the now-famous Doolittle Raid. You canât help but feel that Midway robs its narrative of that gift and breaks it down into tiny little battles of deception that the average film audience finds hard to follow.On the bright side, good camerawork and nifty computer-generated imagery (CGI) enables director Ronald Emmerich to win some redemption. But the fact remains that too much technicality and way too many characters could have resulted in Midway turning out to be an introverted film.