WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
The Battle of Midway was a clash between the American fleet and the Imperial Japanese Navy, which marked a pivotal turning point in the Pacific Theatre during WWII. The events of this heroic feat relied on leaders and soldiers who used their instincts, fortitude, and bravery to overcome the odds.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
In 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service bombed the naval base at Pearl Harbour in Honolulu, Hawaii. In Roland Emmerich's Midway, the film opens with the surprise attack many believe was preemptive. Patrick Wilson's Edwin Layton calls it "the greatest intelligence failure in American history", while scenes of the attack show men falling to the ground, while the military wives who live within sight of the base watch as clouds of smoke fill the air. With the camera panning a gravesite on the naval base, the film recounts the infamous Attack on Pearl Harbour, but this time as a plot device to show the great sense of responsibility the heroes of WWII felt in the Battle of Midway – the next chapter in the story that marked a turning point in World War II, and yet, few people know about.
Midway is told through the eyes of the heroes who fought in the war, so it shows both the battle as well as the lives of those affected by it. With this, in between battle scenes, the backstories of the characters played by a star-studded cast are explored as well. While it helps viewers sympathise with the key players in the battle and helps one understand the fear, sacrifice and bravery it took to fight in the battle, the very many – and too many – backstories in the film, falls through the cracks. Apart from Dick Best's (Ed Skrein) character, none of the other characters who were instrumental in the battle was explored in their entirety, making them irrelevant to the narrative itself.
That being said, the stars of the film delivered performances that not only made you believe in the courage and bravery of these men but were believable in their nuances. First, there's Ed Skrein's Dick Best who appears to be confident and brave, and while he is when he needs to be for his men, he can also be vulnerable – and Ed Skrein manages to switch brilliantly between the two. Bruno Gaido, a gutsy fighter pilot, embodies the fearless soldier who would die for his country – and the delivery of Nick Jonas' sharp one-liners makes his character a favourite in the film. Then there's Keean Johnson's James Murray who's just a kid in the war and is utterly terrified. His is perhaps the most believable character of all, and his portrayal makes his bravery and courage stand out more than most in the end.
The realism in the film meets a sort of Classic Hollywood Cinema style, which also ultimately makes Roland Emmerich's telling of this story so compelling. The German filmmaker was committed to getting everything as historically accurate as possible – when we sat down with him in Hawaii he explained that with a war film, that's vital, which is part of the reason he also included the Japanese soldiers' point of view – and though some may feel as though the final battle was so epic – almost too epic – it's those scenes where you see Ed Skrein's carrier drop from the sky almost vertically to release a missile at just the right place to result in a massive explosion that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
The magnitude of the explosions – even the scenes at the beginning of the film with the grey smoke engulfing Pearl Harbour – make the film every bit as "epic" as it was initially described and marketed. That had much to do with Roland wanting it to be a "vivid monument".
In our interview, he explained to me, "It's mainly that, these people who did this battle, are not forgotten." He said talking about the fighter pilots, the intelligence officers, the soldiers who fought in the Battle of Midway, even though they were completely outnumbered and outgunned, "Movies can very much remind people, 'This happened, these people did that'.
"The film came out on Veterans Day in the US, and though Roland said he didn't want to make a film where there was a massive celebration at the end – "War is something where there is no winners. There's only losers," he told me – it was still a film that would ultimately ignite a sense of patriotism and mean a lot to many families in the US. The film very much focussed on the bravery of these US soldiers and what it took for them to overcome the odds. With that, I wondered how a South African audience would respond to the film.
But again, with Roland Emmerich's epic telling of the Battle and Midway and with the themes that ultimately come through, most anyone will be moved by the film. In our interview with Darren Criss who plays Eugene Lindsey, commander of the fighter plane Torpedo Six, the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actor explained that there are "universal themes" in the film that make it "an accessible source of inspiration for anybody around the world".
"Our South African history probably is pretty lousy," he said, but added, "Heroism and inspiring tales happen all the time, all over the world in everybody's history and everybody's culture."
With that, while Midway certainly has its flaws, the film is worth seeing on the big screen as Roland Emmerich was able to achieve precisely what he set out to do: tell the lesser-known World War II story in a way that does justice to the heroes who fought in it, and still leaves a mark on those seeing and experiencing it for the very first time.