Review – Not Half-Bad (“Midway”)

After Michael Bay gave us HIS interpretation of Pearl Harbor back in 2001, I guess it was only a matter of time before another big-time Hollywood disaster director would take on Midway with all subtlety of a nuclear explosion. That man is Roland Emmerich, who gave us Independence Day and 2012.

Here’s a twist: Emmerich, who’s famous for his disaster films, cranks it back a few notches to give us the exciting, thrilling, and action-filled story of the battle for Midway Island, but without any ridiculous sweeping slo-mo and love-triangle nonsense that was so prevalent in that Pearl Harbor monster epic. Think of this of more of an 80’s throw-back Hallmark Channel saga with improved graphics. Oh, and the background details are better, too. Our starting point is the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor and one Lt. Commander Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) who, after spending time in Japan with Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa), knew this attack was coming.

In a revolving door of storylines, we have multiple plots to juggle, but the main one deals with Lt. Dick Best (Ed Skrein), a hot-shot, hot-headed pilot SO good he’d make Maverick look boring. He butts heads constantly with his boss, Lt. Commander Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) and drives his stubborn wife (Mandy Moore) crazy. But he gets the job done, and that’ll come in handy when Layton gets some cryptic intelligence from the Japanese that they’re planning something big, but nobody will take him seriously. Nobody, that is, except for Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson), who decides to gamble on Layton’s intel.

After the U.S. successfully bombs the Japanese held Marshall Islands, Yamamoto steps up his plans to take out Midway, a strategic U.S. island that if wiped out, makes the entire West Coast vulnerable to attack! Layton, once again using his crack team of code breakers, figures out that Midway is their target, so Nimitz plots a surprise attack by making the Japanese think they’re leaving the area. Hold on to your $27 tub o’popcorn, ’cause act three is where is all action happens. Leading the U.S. attack is gravel-voiced Vice-Admiral William Halsey (Dennis Quaid) and his secret fleet of ships, plus wave after wave of bombers.

During all this mayhem you have side-stories branching off: Lt. Commander Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) leading a suicide bombing raid over Tokyo, the Japanese admirals trying to out-think the Americans, nutty film director John Ford (Geoffrey Blake) who HAS to get the shot, Aviation Machinist Mate Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas) whose heroics saved a ship, and other individual tales that flavor the movie like seasoning on a steak. What’s really cool about all these side stories is, they are all based on fact, even though you’d swear they’re fictionalized. Yeah, there really WAS a Dick Best; his name’s not made up!

Newbie screenwriter Wes Tooke (the TV series Colony) throws every absurd dialogue cliché in the book around, along with every standard trope you’ve seen in every historical docu-drama ever made. BUT at least this movie doesn’t take the subject matter and clog it up with alot of extemporaneous nonsense like archaic love stories, buddy-pal bromances, over-the-top flag waving, and just bad acting. Sure, this has a few down-time husband/wife reflections, but it spares no expense in giving you the war, it’s brutality, and what happened to these brave men that fought it so unselfishly and courageously.

Emmerich, like I said, dials it back juuuuust a bit, but still delivers his famous one-two punch in his director’s POV of the fly-boys that really turned the war around. Excellent CGI SPFX, so much so, that I was holding my breath several times during the many bombing runs. Emmerich even recreated several of those infamous WW2 ‘plane crashes on aircraft carriers’ that you’ve seen in archival 8MM home movies. The acting here isn’t over-the-top like in other ‘disaster’ films, but done here on a serious tone, adding to the realism. Patrick Wilson is great as the intel officer that has a mission, and Skrein is just awesome as gum-chewing rebel pilot whose recklessness was his trademark.

Midway (1976)

Back when Hollywood made HUGE, epic pictures like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno and used a ridiculous, panic-inducing sound system called ‘Sensurround’, there was no CGI, fancy de-aging, or young actors that didn’t know the subject matter. THIS movie was completely different than the others.

Six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Japanese Navy decided to wipe out the remaining U.S. Navy fleet by an all-out naval attack at Midway in the Pacific. Japanese commanding officers, including Admiral Yamamoto (Toshiro Mifune–but dubbed by Paul Frees!), set up a secret ambush for the U.S. by luring their fleet to another location. BUT! Unbeknownst to them, their secret encrypted messages had been intercepted and decoded. Admiral Nimitz (Henry Fonda), realizing the trap, decides to play along and confirm the Japanese orders, thus giving them the impression that everything’s okay. Sneaky!

Meanwhile, another story is playing out: Captain Matthew Garth (Charlton Heston) is having a helluva time coming to grips with his officer son (Edward Albert) who has fallen in love with a Japanese-American girl in Hawaii and needs dear ‘ol dad to get her out of immigration trouble. Awkward! Anyway, things are getting underway with battle strategies, war plans, and who’s gonna command what ship. After the Japanese flagship goes after Midway Island, the U.S. fleet closes in and the sea battle commences with a deadly game of chess.

Leading the Japanese attack is Vice Admiral Nagumo (James Shigeta), getting his advice from brown-nosing Rear Admiral Kusaka (Pat Morita) and sage Commander Genda (Robert Ito), but he’ll have to deal with the U.S. fleet closing in and Rear Admiral Spruance (Glenn Ford) and Capt. Garth on his tail. Then there’s all the brave fly-boys in the air looking for the evasive Japanese fleet, not only trying to attack the aircraft carriers, but having to avoid getting picked-off by the relentless Japanese Zero’s buzzing all around them. After an exhausting, harrowing, and grueling battle in the sea, the U.S. squeaks by victorious and the Japanese retreats.

Written by Donald Sanford, who wrote mainly TV shows like Outer Limits and Bonanza, this by-the-numbers movie is played for it’s actual historical content and not so much for any individual, intimate human drama, save for that ridiculous side-plot about Capt. Garth’s son, which was totally unnecessary. The script almost reads like one of those historical docu-dramas you see on the History Channel, but with one helluva cast! Instead, what director Jack Smight (Harper, Airport ’75) and prolific producer Walter Mirisch did was to present a REAL as possible movie to the public. And for that, they went right to the source… the U.S. Government.

Using real archival Navy & Air Force 16mm footage, ‘borrowed’ footage from Tora! Tora! Tora!, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Battle Of Britain, and other movies, this movie’s film stock was actually degraded to match the archival footage! Yes, it looks dated in it’s filming with it’s old-fashioned rear-screen projection (the plane’s cockpit scenes are especially hokey), but the real treat is the precision of the main characters and how they tried to out-think their enemies. Try to forget how all the Japanese here speak perfect English! The back and forth intelligence the U.S. military received, the second-guessing of their own decisions, accepting others advice, and seeing how the other half felt emotionally. Definitely worth a second look!

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