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Naval-gazing: Why Midway stays afloat despite that sinking feeling


directed by Roland Emmerich

A film about the pivotal WWII sea battle by master-of-disaster Roland Emmerich is surprisingly good.

Since the first shots were fired, the Battle of Midway has always been in the movies. The celebrated director of westerns, John Ford, won an Academy Award for his doco The Battle of Midway – as a US Naval reservist making propaganda films, he and a cameraman were on the tiny airbase island 1700km west of Pearl Harbour when the Japanese attacked on June 4, 1942.

Some of his footage was later used in the 1976 Midway, a film that brought out the big guns (Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, James Coburn, Toshiro Mifune) for a melodramatic military spin on the disaster flicks of the era.

Now, modern master-of-disaster Roland Emmerich, a man who has induced the apocalypse many times in the likes of Independence Day, 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, has thought it timely for retrospective naval-gazing.

Say this for his Midway, given his track record, it could have been worse. True, sometimes it can feel like a sequel to, and occasional action replay of, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, with dated visual effects and videogame-quality air-combat sequences.

But as a dramatisation of what led to the battle and how the US claimed a pivotal victory, it’s a sturdy history lesson. It’s also an unnerving reminder of the hazards of naval aviation of the period and that there was a fine line between being a dive-bomber or torpedo pilot and a kamikaze one. In both cases, you were there as a guidance system unlikely to survive. Just on the Allied side, it would be nice if you could bring the plane back afterwards for another go.

The film briefly features a portrayal of Ford as one of many real-life characters the film follows in its sprawl of storylines. Also on parade are top brass including US Admirals Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) and Halsey (Dennis Quaid) and Tokyo air-raid leader Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart giving the role even more heroic chin than Alec Baldwin did in Pearl Harbor).

But most of the movie is spent divided between intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), who correctly predicted the Japanese plans based on intercepted code-broken messages, and maverick flyboy Dick Best (Ed Skrein) who, despite a wife (Mandy Moore) and child back at Pearl, laughs in the face of death – though playing him, English rapper-actor Skrein makes it sound like an impression of Willem Dafoe laughing in the face of death while chewing through a machine-gun belt of dud dialogue. His best line is directed to his tail gunner, reluctant to go on another sortie: “We’ve come this far, Murray, don’t let me go back out there without you.”

Possibly because the movie tries to be an even-handed take on everything about Midway, it does wind up not being about anything much. Like its 1970s predecessor, it’s a big, noisy mishmash populated by two-dimensional characters. But for all that, this Midway still engages as a throwback Hollywood war film, with tolerable levels of American rah-rah.



Video: Roadshow Films NZ

This article was first published in the February 8, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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