Maybe one of the most important things about a film concerning itself with historical events is that it do so truthfully and accurately. Sure, we’ll forgive some minor inconsistencies at the expense of storytelling, dramatic license, and time constriction, but you need to get the majority of things right. And in this respect director Roland Emmerich’s (Independence Day, Day After Tomorrow, White House Down) retelling of Midway gets them right. (You can see a factcheck here at History vs Hollywood.)
Of course, the next thing a film needs to do to be successful is to be both engaging and entertaining, and I’d say Midway succeeds on these merits as well, an opinion echoed by its Rotten Tomatoes Audience score of 92%. This is not to say Midway isn’t without its flaws, attested by the critics’ less-than-enamored RT score of 42%.
The film opens four years before the events of Pearl Harbor with Japanese Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) ominously telling US intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) that Japan will attack if its oil supplies are threatened. Cut to December 7, 1941 and the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, which delivers the US Navy its biggest defeat in history.
Midway concerns itself with the events following that attack, and how the US regroups and looks to not only save itself but deliver a counterpunch to the Japanese navy, leading up to the attack known as the Battle of Midway.
With the modern-day might of the US Navy, we don’t often think about just how close to utter defeat the naval forces were following Pearl Harbor. On that day, more than 2,300 sailors were killed along and 1,000-plus wounded, 18 ships were damaged or sunk, and 180 planes were destroyed. To restore naval operations, Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson, wearing a white wig nearly as distracting as his big white Joe Biden teeth from SNL sketches) is brought in to take control of the Pacific Fleet, described as “the most difficult job in the world.”
Following Pearl, the US had just three functional carriers, compared to Japan’s ten and zero functional battleships compared to Japan’s nine, with the Japanese also having more cruisers, bombers, and fighters; and much of their equipment was more modern. If the gamble at Midway didn’t pay off, the United States would have likely been sidelined for much of the war.
The movie does a good job of presenting these stakes, as well as compressing the timeline into an easy-to-follow narrative. If it is guilty of anything, it’s of trying to cram so many stars into so many roles that none of the characters are really fleshed out. It’s hard for viewers to really care for anyone when they have just a bit of screen time before another new and famous face is trotted out in the next scene.
And, honestly, there is more than enough drama in the true events of the war that we don’t need to be distracted by cutaway stories about USO parties or brief shots of homelife.
A perfect example is Mandy Moore cast as Ann Best, wife of hotshot pilot Dick Best (Ed Skrein), who seems to be there just so they could have her name in the credits, and serves no real role in the film. Dennis Quaid is also underused as Admiral Halsey. Aaron Eckhart is given a small role as Jimmy Doolittle, a pilot awarded the Medal of Honor for leading a near-suicidal bombing mission on Tokyo who must bail out in China and evade capture from the Japanese army, which killed 250,000 Chinese civilians for aiding in the escape of Doolittle and the other American pilots who survived the raid (events covered in the 2017 film In Harm’s Way). Musician Nick Jonas is brought on to portray real-life hero Aviation Machinist Bruno Gaido, receiving enough dialogue and backstory to give his character a bit of depth.
It’s tough to build much suspense when retelling a story where most viewers already know the outcome, but Midway manages to give the action scenes enough tension that you can’t help but groan as bombs and torpedoes slide just past their targets, missing by scant feet. The film also blatantly telegraphs its heroes. We know early on that cocky pilot Dick Best is going to be playing a big role in the air campaign, and when we see him perform a ridiculous landing maneuver onto an aircraft carrier very early on, we know we are going to see this move again later in the film. When Nimitz instructs Layton to make sure the
intelligence mistakes of Pearl aren’t repeated, you know the time will come when Layton will have to convince Nimitz to trust him. Or that the friction between Dick Best and Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) will turn into a grudging respect.
Shot on Panavision DXL cameras at 8K resolution, Midway is taken from a 2K digital intermediate, not unusual for a film so heavily laden with CGI effects. Closeups feature
lots of detail, but don’t seem to have that Nth degree of resolution of films with a true 4K DI. There is still plenty of detail to appreciate n clothing, from a crocheted top worn by Moore in one scene, to the wooly texture of Japanese officers’ uniforms, to the collar stitching on Americans’ shirts, to the leathery texture of the pilots’ seats.
Since none of the ships portrayed in the film still exist (at least not in their WWII-era state), they all had to be created, and the resolution does lay bare several instances of pretty blatant CGI, where things just look a bit video-gamey. The opening shot of an aircraft carrier with sailors doing PT on the deck just doesn’t ring true, especially if you focus on individual characters long enough. Nor does a scene at a graveyard in Pearl, which just looks . . .off. Any time there are so many computer-generated ships and planes on screen—which is often—there are bound to be a few instances where some shots aren’t perfect, but it is often the long shots that seem to suffer most.
HDR is used to good effect throughout, not just to enhance the brilliant red-orange fireballs that erupt from exploding ships and planes, burning with a vibrant fury and intensity, but also to bring an extra layer of depth and punch to interior shots aboard ships where sunlight in pouring in through port holes or walkways. The ocean gleams in shades of blue, with bright highlights as the sun glints off its surface, and exterior scenes are bright enough to make you squint into the sunny skies. Blacks remain deep and dark, and I didn’t notice any banding, which is a challenge with the varying shades of blue and grey
in the skies as planes fly in and out of different lighting and cloud cover.
Beyond the visuals, Midway offers a fun ride that sounds fantastic in a home theater. In fact, you might call it a 2-hour 18-minute Dolby Atmos spectacle masquerading as a war movie. The sound mix plays a dynamic role in nearly every scene, and if anyone has every wondered if their height speakers are working or if Atmos can add to the immersion of a movie, just show them any of the aerial attack scenes where the audio lends a wonderful third dimension to plane flyovers.
Planes rip along the side walls and into the back of the room, or roar past overhead, diving down on unsuspecting pilots, bullets shredding things around you. Flak shells explode left, right, above, and behind you, with bullets ricocheting all around the room.
Midway will also test your subwoofer’s mettle, with deep bass present throughout. Beyond the bombs and explosions, ships crash through waves with appropriate weight, and AAA guns thump you in your seat with repeated blasts. There is also the constant low, steady, bassy rumble as a background reminder that you’re aboard a warship, along with other ambient mechanical sounds to place you on
board, or the deep, throaty roar of the planes’ engines. There is also the carnage of the USS Arizona breaking up after explosions and then ripping itself apart with groans, creaks, and the rumble of crumpling steel.
Available for download now at the Kaleidescape Store ahead of its 4K disc release on February 18, Midway hits enough high points to overlook its flaws, and makes for a rollicking night in your home theater, with one of the most dynamic and immersive Dolby Atmos audio tracks I’ve heard in a while.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.