I saw a good Midway movie on Thursday, unfortunately it was the 1976 version. Although not a great war movie, it is much better than the new CGI extravaganza from Roland Emmerich (“The Patriot”). He had trouble raising the $100 million price tag, I guess because investors questioned the public’s desire to see a movie about the Battle of Midway. What, no aliens? He must have spent 90% of the money on the CGI, leaving only about 10% for the cast. Remember when epic war movies like “The Longest Day” had all-star casts? “Midway” is not in that league. We do get Woody Harrelson and Dennis Quaid. At least they are age appropriate – I’m looking at you “Midway” (1976). But we also have to watch Nick Jonas and Mandy Moore. Hey kids, come learn some history told by teen idols!
The movie opens with an excerpt from a speech by FDR that has little to do with the movie. This was the first sign that my fears encouraged by the trailers might be justified. We get the usual “true account” claim and the movie is proud of its accuracy. More on that later. Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson – yes, that Patrick Wilson) attends a dinner hosted by Yamamoto in 1937 Japan and they discuss a future conflict between their two countries. Yamamoto predicts that if their oil supply is threatened, it will mean war. Spoiler alert: there will be war. At this point, the movie becomes the Richard Best (Ed Skrein – yes, that Ed Skrein) biopic. It’s 1941 now and Best is a Dauntless dive bomber pilot on a routine flight. He shuts down several things on the plane to simulate a worst-case scenario for their landing and then we get the second clue that my fears were justified because the landing defies all reality through the wonders of CGI. It also serves as foreshadowing for his climactic landing at the end of the film. And proves he’s a maverick. Cliché alert: his commander puts up with him because he’s the best pilot, damn it!
If you have seen the trailer, you know Emmerich had the guts to bring us CGI Pearl Harbor again. Once again we get Zeros flying between battleships while strafing what – the water? And through the wonders of CGI, the Zeros can go below treetop level to strafe streets. As with all the early scenes, the purpose is character motivation. In this case, Best loses his best friend on the Arizona. If we’re not Top Gunning with Best, we are going cerebral with intelligence savant Layton. Joseph Rochefort makes a cameo appearance, but Layton gets the lion’s share of the credit for determining Japanese intentions. In a ludicrous exchange, when his analysis is challenged, he proceeds to tell Nimitz the exact time and place the Japanese fleet will be discovered. And he’s right! The movie does intercut to Yamamoto and disses the Moore/Jonas fans by using subtitles. The movie does the bare minimum in depicting the Japanese planning.
The movie makes barely a mention of Coral Sea, but decides to spend time on the USS Enterprise’s raid on the Marshalls. Why? Because Best needs to drop a bomb that causes collateral damage to a bunch of taxiing Japanese bombers, followed by a chase through mountains by two Zeros. He’s in a Dauntless and they are Zeros, so you know where this is headed (if you are a history buff). If not, get ready for the next big ride at Universal Studios! Next is the obligatory Doolittle Raid starring Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckert) and only Jimmy Doolittle. Enough foreplay, on to the main event. The movie hops through the greatest hits: discovering what AF stood for, Yorktown being repaired, Spruance taking over for Halsey, the USS Nautilus not sinking a ship, etc. The battle begins at around the 1:30 mark meaning Emmerich only has time to film the story of how the USS Enterprise and Dick Best won the war. He does manage to throw in an homage to John Ford’s filming his Midway documentary. Note to Emmerich: it is not wise to remind the audience of a great director. The next twenty minutes is full of flak and flames. (Note: no Japanese were harmed in the filming of this movie.) Safe your tissues, Yorktown fans. Once again, just as in 1976, the carrier somehow survives cinematically.
I have not read any reviews yet, but I know the movie is being crucified. Justly so. I don’t want to gloat about seeing this coming. I wanted to like it and I’ve already mentioned I like the similarly crucified 1976 version. But this movie is to 1976 what “Pearl Harbor” is to “Tora! Tora! Tora!” In other words, a CGI bloated war movie insult. “Midway” (1976) and “Tora!” may have had wooden acting and quaint combat footage, but at least they were good history lessons. Not that this movie is laughably inaccurate. The seemingly most ludicrous historical atrocity (Bruno Gaido jumping into a parked plane’s back seat to shoot up a crashing Betty bomber), actually occurred! It is more balanced between the command (Nimitz, Halsey) and the pilots than 1976 and all the airmen (Best, McCluskey, Gaido, Dickinson) are real people and are fairly accurate. Emmerich's effort to bring these great warriors to the public's attention is by far the greatest strength of the movie. It's just a shame that he has someone like Best (the only human being to bomb two carriers in one day) look like Luke Skywalker. The others are treated more realistically. Layton gets his due (at the expense of Rochefort). But Fletcher is not even mentioned and Spruance is barely in the movie and comes off in a negative way as an overly cautious fill-in for Halsey. As a Spruance fan, I was very irritated with his treatment. So, as a history lesson, it won’t steer you the wrong way, but the coverage of the battle is half-assed as it concentrates on making Best into a superhero. The CGI is good, but as usual it allows the filmmaker to defy reality. For example, Best escapes a Zero by doing a hammerhead stall (climbing vertically until about to stall, then dropping the nose to reverse direction), something a Dauntless could not have done. In fact, virtually everything Best’s plane does is ridiculous if you know anything about dive bombers. He waits until less than 500 feet before releasing his bomb and then has to skim the water when pulling out. Typically, each Best flight gets more ludicrous because Emmerich has to top the previous effect. I was laughing by the end of the movie. The CGI does allow for realistic looking aircraft and that is a treat for aviation buffs. But then they just can’t stop themselves from adding two bombs to the torpedo planes!
We all know what to expect with CGI war movies by now, but can’t we get some decent acting just once. While not as wooden as the 1976 cast, this one’s low rent all-stars sincerely do try, but they just come off like a high school play. Skrein can be good, but here he labors through an atrocious accent and just can’t pull off the Tom Cruise imitation. Wilson appears to be constipated through most of the picture. Luke Evans sports a mustache that is equivalent to Skrein’s accent. Nick Jonas and Mandy Moore are singers. The bombastic music doesn’t cover for them. The dialogue is as bad as you would expect. “I thought you were dead.”
Well, we are still waiting for CGI to make the great air combat movie. The effects have improved to where it might be possible, but if filmmakers continue to insist on using it to “enhance” the story we’ll never get there. There will never be another movie about Midway. Twice was enough. However, I want you to imagine taking the screenplay for the 1976 movie, throwing out the romance, adding Best and the others without the melodrama, and doing a frame by frame replication of the combat using CGI. Now you have a great war movie. Someone should try it with the Battle of Britain.
GRADE = D+