Midway review – a long, loud and tedious history lesson

Roland Emmerich’s version of the second world war Pacific battle is a drearily earnest monument to CGI mayhem

Never in the history of war movies have so few thrills been delivered by so much mayhem and destruction. The attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the battle of Midway six months later have been brought to the screen with boredom-inspiring spectacle by Roland Emmerich. The film is a passion project and comes with a guarantee that its events are historically accurate.

This is the director who sent aliens to invade Earth in Independence Day and armed the president with a rocket launcher in White House Down. But now Emmerich is getting serious, carving a great monument of a movie, a cinematic statue to the bravery of the young men who sacrificed their lives in the Pacific. And like watching a statue for two and a half hours, there’s nothing to do but sit back and yawn.

The film begins with Pearl Harbor, a battle scene that, like the set pieces that follow, hurls a barrage of CGI with some mild 12A-rated carnage that never offers a real sense of jeopardy. Ed Skrein, the British actor from Deadpool, is Lieutenant Dick Best, a showoff pilot whose “cowboy bullshit” in the cockpit is thwarting his promotion chances to squadron commander. Skrein does his best, but a couple of tics – gum chewing and a thick New Jersey accent – do not a character make.

Aaron Eckhart in Midway.
Enemy encounter … Aaron Eckhart in Midway. Photograph: Alan Markfield/Allstar/Centropolis Entertainment

The most interesting strand of the movie involves Patrick Wilson as intelligence officer Edwin Layton, whose warnings about a Japanese attack were repeatedly ignored by top brass. Woody Harrelson (looking distractingly like Ted Danson with bleached white hair) is the newly appointed commander of the Pacific fleet, Admiral Nimitz, a man who overcomes his instinctive mistrust of the geeks in the codebreaking unit to take heed of their intelligence about a new Japanese assault.

The Americans go into the battle of Midway as underdogs, outmanned and outgunned, but with the element of surprise on their side this time: the Japanese are unaware that their naval messages are being intercepted. The clash of firepower when it comes is a colossal thundering snore of a battle. But the heroism of dive bombers like Dick is something to behold as they fly their planes nose down to get as close as possible to the enemy target. Today, the whole thing would be executed by unmanned drones operated thousands of miles from the war zone.

Emmerich goes mercifully easy on the flag-waving patriotism, and he’s pretty even-handed, too, in his portrayal of the Japanese enemy. But his film never really grapples with the human cost of war, and the death of so many young men. A big, long, loud, boring history lesson, it’s a movie that opens a distance between yesterday’s fights and today’s. Emmerich and his scriptwriter Wes Tooke seem to be saying: “Look at these feisty brave boys, who strapped into planes on doomed missions – they did it for our freedom.” The best thing to do with this movie would be to take cover and wait for it to pass.

• Midway is released in the UK and the US on 8 November and in Australia on 28 November.


Cath Clarke

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Greyhound review – Tom Hanks goes to war on the high seas
Hanks plays a ship’s captain under attack from a wolf pack of Nazi U-boats in a tense and poignant second world war drama

Peter Bradshaw

06, Jul, 2020 @4:00 PM

Article image
Natural Light review – reprisals and revenge in chilling examination of the toll of war
Documentary director Dénes Nagy explores how conflict erodes loyalty, morality and human consciousness in his award-winning first feature

Peter Bradshaw

09, Nov, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
Midway review – sinks like a depth charge
Impressive aerial battle scenes haven’t a hope of rescuing this jaw-jutting, second world war tosh

Wendy Ide

10, Nov, 2019 @10:30 AM

Article image
The Birdcatcher review – ropey rural wartime thriller
Disguising herself as a boy, a Jewish girl escapes the Nazis by getting a job on a Norwegian farm in this hammy Euro-drama

Peter Bradshaw

02, Oct, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Overlord review – nasty second world war action-horror fantasy
This bizarre and gruesome tale of an allied assault on a church in Nazi-occupied France leaves an unpleasant taste

Peter Bradshaw

07, Nov, 2018 @2:00 PM

Article image
Hacksaw Ridge review – Mel Gibson's war drama piles on the gore
Andrew Garfield delivers a sympathetic performance as a soldier who refuses to carry a gun in this powerful real-life story of heroism in world war two

Peter Bradshaw

26, Jan, 2017 @3:30 PM

Article image
All Quiet on the Western Front review – anti-war nightmare of bloodshed and chaos
Teenage boys quickly find themselves caught up in the ordeal of trench warfare in this German-language adaptation of the first world war novel

Peter Bradshaw

12, Oct, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
Champions review – Woody Harrelson goes for slam dunk in likable basketball drama
Grumpy coach Harrelson trains a team of teens with learning disabilities in this remake of the Spanish film Campeones

Peter Bradshaw

08, Mar, 2023 @12:00 PM

Article image
The 12th Man review - real-life derring-do minus the thrills
This laborious depiction of a Norwegian second world war hero squeezes all the drama out of an exciting story

Peter Bradshaw

03, Jan, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
Triangle of Sadness review – heavy-handed satire on the super-rich loses its shape
The new film from Palme d’Or winner Ruben Östlund takes aim at obvious targets, and makes a mess of hitting them

Peter Bradshaw

25, Oct, 2022 @12:36 PM