Heroism in the face of unimaginable danger is the thing of great wars, and of blockbuster movies. It takes some modicum of insanity — and a disregard of danger to self — to enlist in an odds-defying battle against a determined, murderous enemy. If your name is Roland Emmerich, it takes that same lack of sense of self-preservation to wade back into the waters, given the fusillade of guns that you know you will face from heckling audiences and critics ready to pounce. It is, after all, popular and easy to hate on Emmerich and his kind of conventional, big budget, mindless popcorn entertainment. Do not let knee-jerk bias fool you: his new film, “Midway,” focused on the lead up and actual critical battle in the Pacific Theater of World War II, is masterfully entertaining. The screenwriting largesse all Emmerich movies exhibit is right there along with the breathtaking explosions. But for each barrage of unbearable one-liners is bone-chilling action from an inherently enthralling story. The end result will not win Emmerich the battle against determined critics, but it could win him the war with audiences.
“Midway” opens in 1937, when Commander Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) is still a naval intelligence officer in relatively peaceful Japan. (The ambitious Empire has already laid waste to continental China.) As Layton verbally jousts with Naval Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa), he makes no qualms of his knowledge that his own country may be next in Japan’s sights. Later in history, and in the film, when the surprise attack on Hawaii has left the U.S.S. Arizona underwater and thousands dead, Layton is lauded as “the man who tried to warn us!” by a disgraced Naval Admiral. The episode is symptomatic of what Emmerich and the script by Wes Took will offer you during the crisp runtime: transcendental events for the history humanity wrapped in cinematic kitsch. This is straightforward filmmaking from start to finish but, so what? As 1937 yields to late 1941, the stakes for both sides could not be higher, with Pearl Harbor leading to Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) leading to the Coral Sea and then, finally, to the critical eponymous battle. Could there be something more compelling? If you admire bravery and sacrifice, you will admire these men. That is what film inherently is about, even under the stricter scriptures of someone like Martin Scorsese.
The heart of “Midway,” however, is not Layton, nor the new Admiral that takes control, Chester Nimitz (a surprisingly effective and not hammy Woody Harrelson). The story belongs to lesser known dive bomber Lieutenant, Richard “Dick” Best. This pivotal role is left to the least-known actor of the bunch, “Deadpool’s” Ed Skrein, a clever and important move permitting viewer immersion given the otherwise long-parade of known names raging from teen heartthrobs (Darren Criss, Nick Jonas) to elderly statesmen (including Dennis Quaid and Luke Evans). The reasons why Best’s story is worth cinematic treatment and audience dedication veer deep into spoiler territory. But if you can get past his gunslinger clichés — the cockiness, the daredevil attitude, the drawl, the gum chewing, the doting, nervous wife (played by Mandy Moore) — it will be worth your while. His heroics are not simply impressive, they are spine tingling and sui generis. Involuntary whoops and cheers will be forgiven.
Emmerich had firmly established himself — at least before he was mysteriously exiled into the purgatory of directors we love to deride and mock — as one of America’s most powerful disaster/epic filmmakers. “Independence Day” and, I would argue, “The Day After Tomorrow,” are both popcorn classics. “Midway” shows why. He has a keen touch for excitement, for heart-pounding sequences plucked from history or his imagination. A pulsing soundtrack and made-to-look real effects both help, but it is Emmerich’s guiding eye, always looking for improbability and gumption, as if he were director John Ford improbably caught in the middle of the Battle of Midway, that really gets you where you need to get.
Does “Midway” have any emotional anchor or humanistic ground to break? In some surprising ways, it does. The narrative deftly carries you from the surprise December 7 to the turning point in Midway a few months later. America’s colossal intelligence failure, Japan’s overconfidence, the element of surprise — a trifecta of doom for the Allies in 1941 — all flipped into strengths by the time the summer of 1942 rolled around. In telling this story, he provides a concisely understandable history lesson on a critical juncture that is not squarely within the national consciousness. At least not as much as the “day which will live in infamy” is. One cannot blame movie-going audiences for still feeling traumatized from when Hollywood took us to that sphere of history. No doubt, 2001’s “Pearl Harbor” was a disaster as colossal as the surprise attack itself. Few times has Tinsel Town managed to destroy such an inherently powerful story with head-banging, hackneyed contrivances. While “Midway” at times suggests it may go there, it never does, remaining instead remarkably steady in what it is most interested in: honoring the heroes of the battle while entertaining the audiences brave enough to dare relive what could be another “Pearl Harbor” like horror.
“Midway” is helped perhaps by the increased temporal distance between the events at issue and the present. It is helped by the fact that many other painful memories now occupy the American psyche. With that, it is able to provide a more detached and nuanced portrayal of all sides, rather than falling into pure American exceptionalism. Dissent within U.S. ranks is given the same treatment as Japan’s own errors. The distinctive characteristics of both sides — Japanese undying loyalty, American unending bravery — are both on effective display. I do not need to tell you what the various characters do because you have, indeed, seen it before. Quaid and Harrelson grunt, Wilson looks cerebral, and disturbed, while Jonas and Criss are sexy-light, unabashed, and risk-taking. There are a lot of explosions, a lot of shots fired. It is a roller-coaster of a film — but an exciting and frightening one at that.
Portraying what led to Midway and how the naval offensive itself transpired, it turns out, is no easy task. Not only is the barrage of anti-air flack overpowering, but the diplomatic and military stratagems are complicated enough. The various players alone make the story complex and the task thankless. Emmerich manages to lay out a mostly clear picture of how they all interact, while making you hold your breath. Though there is almost as much two-cent wisdom from all the overconfident characters as there are planes in the sky, at least there are enough truly gripping moments plucked from real life.
It is easy enough to rag on World War II movies, or on epics. There are so many of them, they are a known quantity and a genre all onto their own. “Why do we need another WWII movie?” is, no doubt, a valid question. The films themselves are, of course, predictable. But so many exist because a conflict as epic as the last great World War is full of stories demanding to be told. There is a reason directors like Ford found themselves drawn to the action as it unfolded — life and death questions and moments are a critical reason to go to the cinema. Courage and valor also help. Skrein is the glue at the center, equally unoriginal but not, for that reason, less compelling.
“Midway” opens and proceeds much as you would expect. With FDR’s booming voice, warning of the momentousness of the task ahead. The film’s opening titles set up equally high stakes, promising “the most important naval battle in U.S. history.” Even Yamamoto’s well-known “sleeping giant,” of questionable historical pedigree, makes an appearance. By the time the epilogue credits roll around, however, you may believe it was all true, despite your better instincts. That is because, it really was. Emmerich understands the stakes better than anyone, and has a keen talent to show them to you. The brave souls that he honors with his film provide him with more than sufficient material to do so.