When asked about World War II, many people instantly think of Adolf Hitler and his evil armies of Nazis who stormed across Europe and wound up murdering millions of Jews and Christians in concentration camps. It’s easy to forget that the Allied forces were fighting three enemies at once, with Japan and Italy also ruthlessly destroying lives in other parts of the globe. As decades pass and the world’s bad guys become harder to define and defeat decisively, it’s helpful to have reminders of the brave sacrifices American soldiers made in defending freedom in so many ways and places.
The new movie Midway offers an exciting and stirring reminder of those points. Directed by Roland Emmerich, who has built a career upon blockbuster action epics ranging from Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow to 2012 and White House Down, this war epic combines a classic tale of courage with the best special effects Hollywood has to offer and a star-studded cast to bring the war-movie genre back to life.
Midway is the first Hollywood World War II epic in nearly two decades, dating back to 2001’s Pearl Harbor, directed by Michael Bay and starring Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale. That movie put a lot of time and effort into its visuals and not enough into its storyline, with its centerpiece being a recreation of the Japanese attack on the US Naval base that was stunning to watch but also dragged on for nearly 40 minutes. It also centered too much on a love triangle among two soldiers and the woman who came between them, leaving viewers confused about whether it was a war movie or a very expensive romance.
Midway goes in the opposite direction, putting the emphasis on both the harrowing attacks that American troops endured and the combination of stunning firepower and crafty strategizing that helped ensure victory in the end. This focus on the battles against imperial Japan rather than the overused and tired focus on Hitler found in far too many other WWII movies is welcome and different.
The film opens on a tense discussion between an American intelligence expert named Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) as he speaks with a moderate Japanese military leader in 1937 Japan. Layton is warned that if America and the West push Japan’s militaristic factions too hard, the Japanese will strike back viciously to assert their strength in the world.
Four years later, that warning came back to haunt the U.S. when Japanese bombers launched a devastating surprise attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base on the morning of December 7, 1941. Emmerich captures the insanity of it all with effects that send planes flying off the screen, crashing into naval warships and some stunning shooter’s-eye and pilot’s-eye views of the action as the American forces fight back.
Once the dust settles and the shocking cost of the attack is fully realized, the brilliant Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) is called in to oversee the retaliation. While the movie is stacked with several more impressive battle sequences, centered upon wild man pilot Dick Best (Ed Skrein) and ace tail gunner Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas), Midway also shows the complicated strategizing that took place as the conflict escalated, with the U.S. realizing that Midway Atoll would be the location for a decisive battle that would save the West Coast from an even bigger assault from Japanese forces.
As mentioned, Midway delivers best when serving up intense bouts of action. Its pre-end credits sequence showing the results of what happened to each of the heroes depicted also drives home the point that these were real men putting their lives on the line to keep the world free, and there’s no overstating the impact of that fact.
At the film’s world premiere in Los Angeles this past Tuesday night, Emmerich noted that he believes Midway is an important film for our times. The movie was a dream project of his for twenty years, with a large part of the delay coming because Pearl Harbor beat it to theaters, and studios were afraid the two films would be too similar in viewers’ eyes. Yet he believes that rather than shying away from WWII films, Hollywood should be making more of them.
“We live in a world that’s totally divided, especially in America. We live in freedom. These guys were united and gave their life for democracy,” said Emmerich. “It’s great to remind people today that these people existed, and every one or two years there should be a World War II movie to remind people about that. Especially in our times, when everyone is so sarcastic and cynical. These guys were true heroes and were the greatest generation.”
The film is not without its weaknesses. The heavy amount of strategizing involved and the way the story jumps from battle to battle often makes the narrative confusing, blurring the many battles and military personnel together. And aside from the hotshot team of Skrein and Jonas, there aren’t many chances for the rest of the cast to stand out, although the normally bald and overly energetic Harrelson is interesting to watch in a calm, thoughtful role that also features a full head of hair.
Overall, however, Midway stands out as a refreshing, giant-scaled throwback to a war genre that’s rarely attempted anymore. If you’re looking for an often thrilling and patriotic look back at some of the bravest men America’s ever known, this is a great way to go.
Trailer for Midway:
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!