Review: Midway torpedoes MAGA hat hate

Movie review: Midway

Roland Emmerich shows uncharacteristic restraint in his ode to the Battle of Midway, an against-all-odds story of courage and bravery that truly made America “great.”

Midway

3/5

Starring: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Nick Jonas, Aaron Eckhart, Luke Evans, Etsushi Toyokawa, Alexander Ludwig, Tadanobu Asano

Directed by: Roland Emmerich

Running time: 2 hrs 18 mins

Rating: PG-13

Opening wide November 8, 2019

By Katherine Monk

I remember the 1976 version. It featured Sensurround — a primitive precursor to THX surround sound that added super-amplified bass rumble to every battle scene. The idea was you felt your seat shake and vibrate every time a bomb was dropped, which was, as I remember, rather frequently.

I don’t remember that much about the battle sequences themselves, or the movie, except it starred Henry Ford as Admiral Chester Nimitz and Chuck Heston as Captain Matt Garth. Now that I look it up, it also commissioned a flotilla of other famous male faces of the era, from Hal Holbrook and Glenn Ford, to James Coburn, Cliff Robertson, Robert Wagner and Robert Mitchum.

No wonder Roland Emmerich felt a need to muster big names for his big-gunned epic bearing the very same name — and essentially telling the very same story about a mid-war showdown between American and Japanese forces in the wake of Pearl Harbor.

Considered one of the greatest naval battles ever fought and a turning point in the war for the Pacific, the Battle of Midway took place June 4-7, 1942. These were the days that spawned “The Greatest Generation,” and with it, the very embodiment of American Greatness. This was the moment that gave birth to a notion of moral superiority and Judeo-Christian goodness that would brand the American identity, and ignite a perpetual desire to refer backward every time there was a need to reaffirm the heroic profile of the nation.

Yet, beneath the brim of a MAGA hat, that profile has dimmed in the shadows, which is why just about every shot in Midway is designed to reassert the essence of the male hero in bold, gold clusters of selfless acts of courage. Emmerich wants to remind Americans what it felt like to be the good guys in uniform, fighting against the odds for a just cause.

Soaking his frames in a yellowish, incandescent tint that evokes the warm sun of the Pacific and the passage of time, the director nails the necessary nostalgia to take us on a voyage that feels sincere, even as it lists hard into swirling seas of sentiment.

Soaking his frames in a yellowish, incandescent tint that evokes the warm sun of the Pacific and the passage of time, the director nails the necessary nostalgia to take us on a voyage that feels sincere, even as it lists hard into swirling seas of sentiment.

Braiding three storylines into a seaworthy tale that includes several angles on the story, all based on “real events,” we pick up the first thread in the years before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Naval intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) is in Japan, watching the winds of Imperialism stir, sharing his concerns for the future with his Japanese colleagues, including Admiral Yamamoto. A scene later, we’re watching squadrons of Zeros rain bombs and bullets on the sitting-duck American fleet, and brave American sailors doing their best to fight off the surprise attack before ultimately succumbing to their wounds.

Ed Skrein and Luke Kleintank star as flyboys in Roland Emmerich’s Midway.

No longer neutral, the United States had to fight back — with a crippled navy. Enter Admiral Chester Nimitz, the all-American commander who oozes easy authority with his strong build and silver hair, and whose spirit finds a willing host in Woody Harrelson. Easily one of the most versatile, as well as one of the most loved, actors of our generation, Harrelson understands what Emmerich needs from him — and what we need, as emotionally sapped viewers. We need a paternal figure we can look up to and trust, the kind of man who used to inspire followers by showing natural leadership and protecting the people under his watch.

Harrelson delivers all the humility and commitment we could hope for, just by looking so comfortable in his own skin. No matter how wrinkled the uniforms may be, Harrelson’s white-haired Nimitz has the comforting appeal of freshly laundered sheets or a pair of worn-in Levis.

Harrelson delivers all the humility and commitment we could hope for, just by looking so comfortable in his own skin. No matter how wrinkled the uniforms may be, Harrelson’s white-haired Nimitz has the comforting appeal of freshly laundered sheets or a pair of worn-in Levis.

While he and Layton figure out the best plan using recently decrypted messages between the Japanese, the flyboys aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise are looking to get even for their losses at Pearl. Dick Best (Ed Skrein) lost one of his best buddies, so every time he climbs into the cockpit and flies off the deck, he’s ready to put it all on the line. You could say the same thing about Wade McCluskey (Luke Evans) and Jimmy Doolitte (Aaron Eckhart), two more pilots who left their mark on military history as key players in the Midway denouement.

Emmerich even salutes the Japanese sailors and pilots who made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation, because in the director’s eyes, the central pillar of heroism is honour. Honourable men take responsibility for their actions. They go down with the ship.

Emmerich even salutes the Japanese sailors and pilots who made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation, because in the director’s eyes, the central pillar of heroism is honour. Honourable men take responsibility for their actions. They go down with the ship.

In an interesting meta-moment, even the movie industry gets a nod. Emmerich includes a scene showing famed Hollywood director John Ford shooting on the beaches of Midway as the battle begins, and Japanese fighters bomb the airfields. Ford was making a film for the war department, and happily shooting sea birds and bathing sailors in paradise, when he and his cameraman found themselves under fire. Instead of seeking cover, Ford keeps shooting, capturing raw footage of the carnage, and suffering significant shrapnel wounds in the process. He didn’t get a medal, but he did win an Oscar for his 1942 documentary The Battle of Midway (you can watch the 18-minute film on Netflix).

It’s a brief moment, but it’s one of the things that make Midway slightly deeper than your average Emmerich pyrotechnics spectacle. He’s trying to find layers in the narrative that allow us to enter a whole moment in time — when men were men, women wore heels, and war and Hollywood were capable of uniting the masses.

Thanks to the cast and the script’s commitment to historical details, the movie kindles warm memories of war films of earlier days — big-budget epics with big stars and bigger guns, but also big heart. To truly reconnect to the spirit of American Greatness, you have to believe in love, and these days, that’s almost a bridge too far for any moviemaker. Emmerich’s film is too self-conscious and strutting to inspire or access anything close to love, but in his desire to resurrect the ghost of noble sacrifice, he lands Midway in safe fashion.

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, November 8, 2019

To read more movie reviews by Katherine Monk, check out the Ex-Press archive or sample career work at Rotten Tomatoes.

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Review: Midway

User Rating

3 (12 Votes)

Summary

3Score

Every shot in Midway is designed to reassert the essence of the male hero in bold, gold clusters of selfless acts of courage because director Roland Emmerich wants to remind Americans what it felt like to be the good guys in uniform, fighting against the odds for a just cause. Soaking his frames in a yellowish, incandescent tint that evokes the warm sun of the Pacific and the passage of time, the director nails the necessary nostalgia to take us on a voyage that feels sincere, even as it lists hard into swirling seas of sentiment. -- Katherine Monk

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