The director, Jack Smight, had flown missions in the Pacific during World War II. Charlton Heston played a pilot whose son had fallen for a Japanese-American girl, which allowed some talk about race, a hot topic so soon after the American defeat in Vietnam.
This new one has racial undertones, too, in a way that reflects new realities. Chinese investors kicked in a quarter of the budget, which might explain why director Roland Emmerich gives us a somewhat tangential sidebar in which Aaron Eckhart gets shot down in China after bombing Tokyo. Japanese atrocities follow, which is true but lacking context (what was the bombing of Tokyo, then?)
Emmerich’s career has been marked by size rather than quality. He gave us the first Independence Day, then stomped on Godzilla; he made the American War of Independence seem dull in The Patriot, then froze the planet in The Day After Tomorrow. More recently, he trashed the big house on Pennsylvania Avenue in White House Down. Emmerich, who’s German, makes the most patriotic movies in Hollywood, which tells us he knows something about butter and bread and which colours don’t run.
Midway is not bad, considering his whole career. Indeed, it’s one of his better films. It’s an enormous spectacle, filled with sound and fury and the best special effects not enough money can buy. Emmerich had to shave his budget by $US25 million ($37 million) to $US100 million to get a green light. For this kind of film, that’s almost low-budget. The FX sometimes reflect that: most of the aerials are spectacular, but not all.
Which brings us to the big question: why did Emmerich want to remake this battle, 77 years after the fact, if he did not have enough money? There are a number of earlier versions to pick from, including John Ford’s original 18-minute Oscar-winning documentary. We didn’t need a new one, unless he had something new to say or a new way to say it. To both questions, the answer is no. Midway is solidly, staunchly rooted in the past in terms of its storytelling. If it has any new ideas, they must have whizzed past me, like the low-flying Zeros bombing Pearl Harbour in the opening scenes.
The characters are all real, apparently. Woody Harrelson plays Nimitz, with Dennis Quaid as Halsey. Eckhart is Jimmy Doolittle, who led the famous raid on Tokyo, in which the pilots knew they would not have enough fuel to get home. Tadanobu Asano and Etsushi Toyokawa are stiff-backed as admirals Yamamoto and Yamaguchi, sailing into a trap set by the Americans.
Patrick Wilson is Edwin Layton, the intelligence officer who convinced Nimitz the Japanese would attack Midway, based on the work done by Joseph Rochefort (Brennan Brown) and his team of code breakers. Front and centre is Dick Best (Ed Skrein), a maverick pilot, with fellow airmen Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) and James Murray (Keean Johnson) trying to curb his bravado. Skrein is English, which might explain his ear-jangling Jersier-than-thou accent.
Midway is fun, if you like your war films loud, proud and in the cloud. The flying sequences are thrilling, if unrealistic. The tub-thumping is restrained, so long as you accept the Americans won the war single-handedly (including the Battle of the Coral Sea, in which Australians are not mentioned). The Japanese are shown as brave and formidable, even somewhat human (except in China).
For once, Emmerich has had to stick to a script written by history. Even so, he still brings a heapin’ helping of his brand of Hollywood heroism. “Battle stations men! Keep that jaw straight soldier! Roger, Red Leader, I’m going in…”
We’ve now come full circle from Star Wars, which based its flying sequences on this kind of film to begin with, but we have not developed any deeper sense of connection or meaning. Midway is just another video game substitute, an action distraction masquerading as history, draped in the flag.
Paul Byrnes is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.