The image of “dive-bombing” is an easy one to conjure in your mind’s eye. Yet I can’t say I ever thought seriously about what the experience of dive-bombing might be like — you know, for the one doing the dive-bombing — until I saw “Midway.” In Roland Emmerich’s convulsive, more-authentic-than-not historical combat movie about the battle that took place between American and Japanese Naval forces from June 4 to 7, 1942, near the Midway atoll in the Pacific theater of World War II, we see U.S. bomber pilots, like the fearless flyboy Lt. Dick Best (Ed Skrein), approach a Japanese aircraft carrier from what must be a mile up in the sky. The U.S bombers zoom down at a nearly vertical angle, like guided missiles hurtling toward the ocean, so that as they approach their target they can blow it up with pinpoint accuracy.
We see all this from the pilot’s vertiginous point-of-view, where it looks like a roller-coaster drop from hell, as showers of enemy gunfire shoot up from the carrier. For all the chaos, the attacks occur with blinding clarity in the sunlit sky (as the Battle of Midway indeed did). And the movie allows us to take the measure of every action. To call these pilots brave would be an understatement — it’s almost impossible to believe they had the stones to do this. (That’s why some of the film’s battle scenes have a tinge of awe.) 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” or “Platoon” or “The Hurt Locker.” There are popcorn war films that reduce historical events to a kind of action catnip, like the Michael Bay-Jerry Bruckheimer “Pearl Harbor” or Clint Eastwood’s demagogic Iraq War exploitation drama “American Sniper.” And then there are movies like “Midway,” which are large-scale commercial entertainments designed to amaze you with their stuff-blowing-up bravura, but that bring it all off in a way that’s more responsible than not.
As blasphemous as it may be to admit, I have a difficult time watching old WWII movies like “The Longest Day” or “They Were Expendable,” since the combat effects, to my eyes, look so primitive that they can seem like something taking place on a Broadway stage. The astonishing authenticity of contemporary war cinema that began, in a major way, with the Hollywood Vietnam films didn’t just set the bar higher. It established a new bar — a bullet-ripping, napalm-choking existential reality. In that light, if you want to know what it was like to fight in World War II (and that’s certainly one reason we go to a war film — to get a direct taste of the experience, at least as much as that’s possible in a movie-theater seat), a film like “Midway” can be said to serve a higher purpose. The film’s drama is B-movie basic, but the destructive colliding metal-on-metal inferno of what war is makes “Midway” a picture worth seeing.
As storytelling, however, it’s just okay (though it’s more streamlined than the cluttered, cliché-strewn 1976 version of “Midway”). It begins with the run-up to the attack on Pearl Harbor (and the attack itself), cutting back and forth between the Japanese military commanders and the Americans, including the one U.S. official who senses, from the late ’30s on, that the Japanese are plotting something — Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), a Naval attaché who becomes a U.S. intelligence officer, leading a team that assembles bits and pieces of intercepted Japanese radio messages. The film’s ardently objective portrayal of the Japanese may remind you, at times, of “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” the 1970 Hollywood version of the Pearl Harbor story that was made, in co-operation with the Japanese, almost as an act of diplomacy. “Midway” captures the essential hubris of Pearl Harbor: how Japan, in the dream of empire, sowed the seeds of its own destruction.
Emmerich, working from a script by Wes Tooke, builds the movie around true-life historical figures, though they’re filled in in a way that feels overtly movie-ish. Patrick Wilson has a terse understated command as Layton, the intelligence ace with 20-20 instincts, and Woody Harrelson, in a white coif, plays Chester Nimitz, the fleet admiral who led the U.S. 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.
The movie handles these characters in a lively but routine way, because its key priority is to sketch in the logistics of how the Battle of Midway unfolded. Basically, it was a follow-up to Pearl Harbor that was planned by the Japanese, who fell into a trap set by the Americans, who had figured out that the attack was going to happen. The element of surprise was key, since the U.S. forces were actually working with less military hardware than the Japanese had. The movie, in its broad-stroke way, captures the unfolding psychology of the battle, as well as the toll it took. We see hundreds of men perish as they’re shot out of the sky or reduced to sitting ducks on aircraft carriers that get bombed with enough firepower to shake the seas.
Emmerich, who directed “Independence Day” and its misbegotten sequel, as well as several films that turn environmental catastrophe into expensive sci-fi disaster schlock (“The Day After Tomorrow,” “2012”), has never been a filmmaker to take seriously. But in “Midway” you can feel him trying to pull his craft together. Taking a page from Mark Harris’s “Five Came Back,” he even includes a few moments with director John Ford (Geoffrey Blake), who was there in the Pacific to capture the military conflagration on film. Emmerich is a patchwork storyteller, but he does give you a sense of how this battle unfolded, and how it turned the tide of our fight against the Japanese. Yet will anyone want to see “Midway”? The 1976 version was a hit, but it may be that this movie is too serious for the popcorn horde, and not good enough for awards season. Even so, there are less honorable things a war film can do than to fall between the cracks.