Dir: Roland Emmerich. Starring: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Dennis Quaid and Woody Harrelson. 12A cert, 138 mins.
Roland Emmerich is one of Hollywood’s great propagandists. Ever since his move to the US in the 1990s, his work has heartily endorsed the myth of American exceptionalism. But while it’s easy to laugh off over-egged jingoism when it’s railing against extraterrestrial invasions and large, rampaging lizards, à la Independence Day and Godzilla, something changes when we start dealing with real history. In Midway, which restages a Second World War battle that still has surviving participants, it quickly becomes a cold and soulless exercise.
The Battle of Midway, which took place six months after Pearl Harbour, formed a turning point in the Pacific War. Not only was the US navy able to repel a Japanese attack, but it devastated the imperial fleet in a way that its enemy was never truly able to recover from. This isn’t the first time it’s formed the basis for a messy, clichéd war film – that honour has already been bestowed on 1976’s Midway, starring Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda. But, in truth, the Pacific theatre has always been a poor source for patriotic filmmaking. Its story resists clean narratives of good vs evil, since both sides here committed war crimes and fought with a sense of unspeakable brutality.
It’s also a conflict that was undeniably touched by racism. The film’s heavy use of a racial slur may be historically accurate, then, but to have it come from the mouths of characters we’re meant to accept as paragons of heroism is troubling. Why stick to reality here when the film elsewhere consistently shuns truth in favour of entertainment?
Even more alarmingly, Midway appears to present its central battle as some kind of conclusive end to the war. There’s no mention of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, when a US pilot is told the Japanese are directly targeting Chinese civilians, we’re meant to react as if this is something inconceivable to the American mindset. The film’s feigned innocence is nauseating. And while we are shown the Japanese perspective, including that of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa), it’s only so they can repeatedly act shocked that the Americans are braver and cleverer than expected.
There’s also something toxic about the particular kind of heroism Midway celebrates. Wes Tooke’s script doesn’t focus on the bravery of dive bomber pilot Richard “Dick” Best (Ed Skrein), whose actions proved critical to the battle’s outcome, but on a kind of Maverick-esque recklessness. When he narrowly escapes an explosion, the mood is far more Die Hard than Saving Private Ryan. The film may be packed with recognisable faces, but these are hollow characters, all placed on some arbitrary scale of machismo. On one end is a nervous, fresh-faced gunner (Keean Johnson), while on another is Dennis Quaid’s Vice Admiral, who grunts more than he speaks. Somewhere in the middle, Nick Jonas sports the fetching moustache and wise-guy accent of a 1920s bootlegger, while Patrick Wilson and Woody Harrelson do their best to stay dignified.
It’s Mandy Moore, however, who’s the most underserved. She plays a borderline parody of the concerned wife, whimpering tragically as she gazes at her own angelic reflection in the mirror.
And with this all shot using the unnerving, CGI slickness we usually associate with superheroes fighting in car parks, Midway manages to walk away looking even more empty-headed and irresponsible than Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour.
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