“Despite some of the ‘Hollywood’ aspects, this is still the most realistic movie about naval combat ever made,” retired Navy Rear Adm. Samuel Cox said of the new film “Midway” in an interview that appears on the U.S. Defense Department website. The article was complimentary to the director, Roland Emmerich, who presents a reliable, precise reconstruction of the Battle of Midway between Japanese and American forces in World War II. Nevertheless, this film presents wearisome proof that a collection of facts as such does not make a good historical movie. In the cinema, as in history books, narrative is crucial.
Emmerich was one of the pioneers of the use of special effects in 1990s Hollywood, his films grossing $3 billion. “Stargate,” “Independence Day,” “The Day after Tomorrow” and “2012” were not brilliant films – they were intended to generate a “wow” effect in viewers, in which they largely succeeded. But since his peak two decades ago, Emmerich has fallen victim to his own success. The spectacle-loving director created images that were burned into the public consciousness – the White House exploding, New York being destroyed – but since then we’ve seen numberless variations of such scenes.
In the current Hollywood landscape, the audience is battle-tested and jaded. The cinematic representation of mass annihilation was perhaps exciting when Will Smith fought aliens, but today Thanos can click his fingers and wipe out half the population of the universe, and the reasonable viewer will ask: Okay, what’s next?
Emmerich, for his part, did not learn how to adjust himself to the spirit of the times and has already been left far behind. His previous film, “Independence Day: Resurgence,” was a painful and embarrassing attempt to reprise the successful old formula and recapture his glory days. Now he’s trying his luck with historical action, taking an especially big risk. After being turned down by all the major studios, he decided to take the independent route with a diverse group of investors. With a $100 million budget, “Midway” is actually one of the most expensive independent films ever. Despite the attempt to create as precise a historical document as possible, the movie looks and feels, more than anything, like a bad action picture.
The plot covers half a year, between two surprise attacks by the Japanese on American forces in the Pacific: Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and Midway Island in June 1942. At Midway, one of the most important battles of World War II, the American naval forces inflicted a particularly painful defeat on the Japanese fleet, which until then had been considered strong. By the time the fighting ended, aircraft carriers, ships, more than 300 warplanes and thousands of people had sunk to the bottom of the sea. From that moment, the balance of forces shifted.
The decision to open the film with the attack on Pearl Harbor allows Emmerich to prepare the ground for the furious American reaction, and at the same time gives him an opportunity to blow up all kinds of things as though this were a video game and not a mass-casualty event. A quick overview of the months that followed is intended to show how American intelligence cracked a Japanese code and thus knew about the attack being planned at Midway. As a result, Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson in an amusing wig that steals the show) was able to set a trap for the Japanese fleet at the isolated island.
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The precise reconstruction of the Battle of Midway, one of the most complex battles in history, would appear to be the director’s sole achievement. In a film that lasts almost two and a half hours, half of which is devoted to this one event, the thrust for realism becomes an oppressive choice. The choreography of the battles turns out to be only a technical achievement: the ability to integrate so many moving elements – entire squadrons, battleships, aircraft carriers, submarines and artillery – on one green screen. The same holds for the various tactics adopted by the U.S. troops, both in the field and in the war room. The screenwriter, Wes Tooke, uses characters the way Admiral Nimitz moves figures around on a huge map, and both have the same purpose: victory in the battle.
However, the lesson at the heart of the failure is old and familiar: There is no such thing as a good movie with an appalling script. An action movie can sometimes survive a mediocre script if the visuals are sweeping, but not if the script is awful. History buffs will certainly find it interesting to see how a battle was managed in 1942 through the prism of the 21st century: A group of senior officers sit around an immense map on which figures represent naval vessels. They play with the arena as in a multiple-participant board game, in which the other side is unknown and unpredictable. The absence of information is so overwhelming that even the troops involved can lose an entire aircraft carrier without knowing where it will show up again.
However, Emmerich’s fondness for planes and large ships is greater than his fondness for people. History, too, is amenable to interpretations and choices, and Emmerich chose to direct from the viewpoint of a military strategist. The film fails above all because of its cardboard heroes. Its creators take pride in the fact that their protagonists are based on real people, but apart from their names, their roles and the actions that earned them decorations, there is nothing real about them. In fact, there is nothing human about them.
This is a known Achilles’ heel in large-scale war movies, but Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is only the latest example of the ability to integrate effective human drama into the heart of a complex picture in this genre. Emmerich’s film, in contrast, stands out by not having even one notable character. Most of the screen time is given to intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), who warned about the impending attack, and the rash pilot Dick Best (Ed Skrein), who was given a central role on the battlefield.
But like the other combat personnel, they do no more than deliver texts. The absence of any character to identify with is a mortal blow to the action itself, because a basic infrastructure of drama is necessary to generate suspense. Without it, the film adds up to an exceptionally expensive historical reenactment.
The consequence is that a reliable depiction of the course of events in that fateful battle becomes an exhausting, interminable saga. In this sense, Emmerich falls into the trap of most military-history buffs: the tendency to bore, even to bore other history buffs. The obsession with strategy and with the order of battle, with tactics and stratagems, misses the broad picture of history as the sum total of human actions. Battles do not take place in a vacuum, they are always part of a bigger story. Even the action can’t compensate for this, because here, too, Emmerich misses the broader picture.
“Midway” comes to the big screen at a time when destruction and devastation have become a daily occurrence, and it doesn’t offer anything new. The only difference is that we get Japanese forces instead of aliens from outer space.