“MIDWAY” — 21⁄2 stars — Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Woody Harrelson, Mandy Moore; PG-13 (sequences of war violence and related images, language and smoking); in general release; running time: 138 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — There’s something wrong with your film when a dramatic depiction of the attack on Pearl Harbor struggles to move the emotional needle.
In “Midway,” director Roland Emmerich sacrifices depth for heavy-CGI action sequences, and gives audiences a film that’s more like a summary of the Pacific Theater’s “greatest hits” rather than a moving portrayal of one of World War II’s critical battles.
After a pre-war meeting between U.S. naval attaché Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) and Japanese Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) offers the background behind the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, we fast-forward a few years to the attack itself, which ushers the United States into World War II.
Amid the chaos, we meet a cross section of characters, each based on real-life people. Lt. Dick Best (Ed Skrein) is the hotshot pilot who is a little too unconcerned for his personal safety, particularly for fellow pilot Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky (Luke Evans). Adm. Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) is the man brought in to take over after Pearl, and Vice Adm. “Bull” Halsey (Dennis Quaid) helms one of the few carriers left after the attack.
The surprise attack has left the American fleet severely hampered, but the war effort gets an early morale boost when Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) leads a daring bombing run over Tokyo before bailing out over occupied China. Other encounters follow in the Marshall Islands and the Coral Sea, and intelligence suspects the Japanese are zeroing in on a significant target that will effectively launch an eventual invasion of the U.S. mainland.
One step at a time, we watch the events that lead to the showdown at Midway which, as you would imagine, provides the capstone CGI spectacle of the film’s third act. But even though the principal characters are all based on real people, “Midway” fails to develop them to a level that offers a genuine emotional response to their harrowing trials. There are good actors in the cast, but no one seizes the moment, and it doesn’t help that a lot of dialogue stooped with cartoon patriotism and stiff acting leave the proceedings feeling awfully two-dimensional.
The biggest weakness, though, might be the CGI effects, which never leave you feeling like you are watching a scene that is remotely real (for all its weaknesses, the attack in 2001’s “Pearl Harbor” even carried more weight). The depictions of the aerial bombing runs on the Japanese carriers do give you an appreciation for the daring nature of the real attacks, but with so many superior war films that have emoted a true on-the-ground sense of the reality of battle — think “Saving Private Ryan” or “Dunkirk” — “Midway” comes across as sanitized and cliched.
Emmerich’s goal seems to be to offer as much breadth and on-screen spectacle as possible, but rather than taking the time to put up title cards every five minutes identifying the specific location and date of every event depicted, some more time on the characters and the story would have better captured the true drama of the subject. “Midway” ultimately only falls midway between a noble idea and a quality product.
Rating explained: “Midway” is rated PG-13 for considerable CGI-heavy action violence, as well as scattered profanity, including racial epithets and a single use of the F-word.