There are complex definitions of auteur theory, but it basically means that a director’s body of work deals with similar themes in similar styles. This applies to filmmaking techniques, such as Stanley Kubrick’s visual symmetry or Paul Greengrass’ documentary-esque shaky cam. Common themes also apply. For instance, Martin Scorsese makes films dealing with corruption and guilt and Steven Spielberg often deals with parental abandonment. Thus, we can easily determine why certain filmmakers gravitate to certain stories. Roland Emmerich, director of Independence Day (1996), The Patriot (2000) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) gravitates towards stories of the heroic everyman versus mass destruction. So it makes sense that he’d eventually dip into WWII films with Midway (2019).
On the morning of December 7, 1941, Japan’s formidable carrier fleet struck Pearl Harbor. The attack prompted the United States of America to enter WWII, with Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) assuming control of the US Pacific Fleet. Nimitz works closely with Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) to determine Japan’s next target, which turns out to be the island of Midway. Meanwhile, we meet Lieutenant Richard Best (Ed Skrein), a Navy pilot who lost a close friend when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Along with many other officers including Luke Evans as Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky, Aaron Eckhart as Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and Nick Jonas as Aviation Machinist’s Mate Bruno Gaido, Lieutenant Best battles the Japanese forces to prevent them from taking over the Pacific.
The battle of Midway is one of the most important in the war. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the event has been adapted to film multiple times, most notably with the similarly titled Midway (1976), directed by Jack Smight and starring Charlton Heston. Just like that earlier film, Emmerich tries to stay true to actual history wherever possible. Admirably, Emmerich has no interest in compressing things, making sure nearly every historically notable person gets named and explained. It’s not just limited to the characters, as various battles, planes, procedures, strategies and events are portrayed (or at the very least, referenced). Obviously, it’s not a completely accurate account as Emmerich has taken creative liberties. He changes event details and omits some key people. It’s not a huge deal, as the alterations don’t defy the historical outcome. Even so, referencing all aspects of the history creates a lack of focus.
It’s admirable that Emmerich wants to cover nearly every aspect of the Battle of Midway, but in doing so the plot becomes overstuffed. In the space of two hours and 15 minutes, almost three intricate years of history are covered. We jump from the attack on Pearl Harbor, to the Doolittle Raid, to the Attack on the Coral Sea. All are covered before we even get to the titular battle. Each of these events could’ve been the subject of their own individual film. Each event did lead to the other, but trying to fit all these events into a restrictive runtime robs the sequences of their impact. They don’t really build cohesively each other, instead just rushing from set piece to set piece. Viewers are forgiving of longer a runtime if the story is paced appropriately, thus a bit more breathing room wouldn’t go unappreciated.
The plot structure isn’t the only thing that suffers, as the sheer number of main characters adds a little too much weight. To be clear, there are plenty of functional films with large ensemble casts. Ensemble films succeed when each character is given a mini-arc that adds to the main arc. It doesn’t matter how large or small, as long as the audience is given enough to make a connection. Sadly, Midway only manages to develop about half of its characters. This results from misallocation of character importance. Patrick Wilson and Woody Harrelson as Edwin Layton and Chester Nimitz respectively, are framed as important but aren’t given enough to do. Nick Jonas has an arc which begins and ends with a bang, but has very little connecting the dots. Even Aaron Eckhart as Jimmy Doolittle is given centre stage for a time, only to be completely ignored down the road. Even when slavishly following historical events, it’s perfectly possible to craft character stories without seeming random.
The craftsmanship rarely falters with the visuals. Evident from his previous work, Emmerich knows how to create striking imagery. The sweeping vistas amaze the viewer and all the airship carriers are framed to display their incredible size. What Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2002) achieved with a nearly hour long action scene, Emmerich achieves in a matter of minutes. Unless you fought in the battles, it’s hard to know if Emmerich depicted the scale of the destruction accurately. Regardless, what’s put on screen seems appropriate and conveys the magnitude of these events. Despite this, there is a slight over-reliance on computer-generated imagery which makes everything look little too clean. With that in mind, it could be argued that the clean and colourful look helps complement the film’s pulpy feel.
There are many different tone’s war films can take. Saving Private Ryan (1998) is bittersweet, The Deer Hunter (1978) is depressing and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is contemplative. Midway opts for nostalgic, leaning into an idea that these wars were fought to protect traditional western ideals. Every aspect of Midway is designed to complement this idea. While this particular angle has been done successfully elsewhere, it doesn’t fully work here as we aren’t given enough to feel the emotion. To be sure, there’s plenty of moments where characters confide in each other to bare their souls, but these moments are built on slightly thin foundations. This even results in some outdated cliches popping up. A nostalgic tone was the right choice, but it wasn’t given enough room to sink in. When the big sequences occur, they’re cheesy instead of powerful.
The 1976 Midway was unsatisfying even in its day, so taking another crack at the material is welcomed with open arms. Emmerich’s sensibilities were (arguably) exactly what this story needed. He clearly has respect for the people who fought these battles and doesn’t want to exploit them. Even so, the appropriate skills from the appropriate auteur can’t help if the film isn’t allowed to develop at its own pace. Everything is in place and there’s a great film here, but most of it was probably left on the cutting room floor. If there turns out to be a three and a half hour extended cut, count me in.
Best way to watch it: Instead of Pearl Harbor (2002) but after Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970).