Midway’s box-office success at US cinemas in 2019 seemed remarkably out-of-step with expectations; who exactly was anticipating a star-studded enactment of the events following Pearl Harbor and American entrance to World War 2? But as SNL pointed out, our fathers seem to be preparing WWII as a specialist subject for some time now, and in the era of fake news where good is bad and wrong is right, it’s understandable that audiences of all ages might enjoy a time-travelling trip back to an era of lantern-jawed heroes, explosive action and wild, colourful dioramas that made Roland Emmerich’s film look like it was sponsored by Viewmaster.
It’s not that previous entries like 1970’s Tora Tora Tora or even 1976’s Midway lacked spectacle; they both have their moments, although there’s a lot of chat and a lot of men pushing models around desk-top maps. Midway takes a lead from Michael Bay’s narratively bloated Pearl Harbor by focusing on a size and scale of the action, but narrows things down effectively by focusing on one specific manoeuvre; the ability of US planes to dive bomb vertically downwards onto Japanese battleships, depositing a deadly, explosive payload directly on deck. Emmerich has had genuine success integrating effects smoothly into his big-screen spectacles, and he really pulls off this move on several occasions, creating a sense of wonder and tension that previous versions lack. Ed Skrein does his best in the Steve McQueen flyboy role, and the final credits do a nice job in identifying the various top-brass personnel that Patrick Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Luke Evans, Dennis Quaid and others play. In fact, Midway has some appeal as a repeat watch, because discovering the identities of these substantial role adds some kind of verisimilitude to a film that tries to balance history with Boys Own heroics.
None of the human dramas are as compelling at the airborne action, which has the super-clear veracity of a high-tech sci-fi movie and is genuinely something to behold. Unlike Pearl Harbor, the pacing is fast, and even if involvement with individuals is not great, the whole spectacle is highly impressive. David Mamet’s suggesting that a blockbuster movie is more like a pageant than a story applies here; Midway feels like a living tableau of deep blue hero action.
One of the most expensive independent movies ever made, Midway made $120+ on a $100 million budget; one of my personal bugbears is Monday morning quarterbacks who analyse such figures and pontificate on whether a film makes its money back or not. Not just because P and A usually double the budget, but because every film has different week one, two and three deals with cinemas in terms of percentage gross. Hit or not, the home-entertainment release of Midway will be top of Fathers Day, Xmas and Dad’s birthday gift lists for some time. War films are a commodity that many feel don’t get made the way they used to; Midway takes the classic war film and does it all in substantially more style and accuracy.
Midway is out now on digital download and on DVD and Blu-Ray from March 9th 2020.