The imagery of ‘dive-bombing’ is easy to build up in your mind. Yet I can’t say I ever seriously considered what the experience of dive-bombing might be like for the one who conducted it till I saw ‘Midway’. In Emmerich’s convulsive, more-authentic-than-not historical combat movie about the battle taking place between American and Japanese Naval forces, we see the fearless US bomber pilots, approach a Japanese aircraft carrier from a mile up in the sky, zooming down at a nearly vertical angle, like guided missiles hurtling toward the ocean, to blow up their target with pinpoint accuracy.
We see this from the pilot’s vertiginous POV, as showers of enemy gunfire shoot up. The attacks occur with blinding clarity. The movie allows us to take the measure of every action. It’s almost impossible to believe they had the courage to do this. But the message of ‘Midway’ is that this is what it took to save civilization.
There are prestige war films, like ‘Full Metal Jacket’ or ‘Saving Private Ryan’. There are popcorn war films that reduce historical events to a kind of action catnip, like the Bruckheimer’s ‘Pearl Harbor’ or Clint Eastwood’s Iraq War exploitation drama ‘American Sniper’. And then there are movies like ‘Midway’, which are huge commercial entertainments designed to amaze you with their stuff-blowing-up, but that brings it all off in a way that’s more responsible than not.
In that light, if you want to know what it was like to fight in World War II, a film like ‘Midway’ can be said to serve a higher purpose.
As storytelling, however, it’s just okay. It begins with the run-up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, cutting back and forth between the Japanese military commanders and the Americans, including the one US official who senses, from the late ’30s on, that the Japanese are plotting something – Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), a Naval attache who becomes a US intelligence officer, leading a team that assembles bits and pieces of intercepted Japanese radio messages ‘Midway’ captures the essential idea of how Japan, in the dream of empire, sowed the seeds of its own destruction.
Emmerich builds the movie around true-life historical figures.. Patrick Wilson plays Layton, the intelligence ace with 20-20 instincts, and Woody Harrelson, in a white coif, plays Chester Nimitz, the fleet admiral who led the US Naval forces, with traces of world-weary wit. On the aircraft carriers, the actors appear to have spent too much time studying the cocky postures of ’40s Hollywood war films. Ed Skrein, for instance, plays the heroic Dick Best with a gnarly showbiz Brooklyn moxie that I enjoyed but never believed. Aaron Eckhart has a stolidity that’s more convincing as Lt Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, who led the symbolically crucial (but militarily insignificant) attack on Tokyo, only to wind up rescued by the Chinese. And Nick Jonas, who has always been a terrific actor, makes his scenes pop as Bruno Gaido, a flyboy who gets to put his strutting patriotism where his mouth is.