Movie Reviews: Midway (2019) And Midway (1976)

The trailer for Roland Emmerich’s 2019 film Midway presented a poorly construed treatment of World War II with hooky jingoism and disaster movie arcs. The film barely broke even in the box office, although it was vastly different from the 1976 movie Midway. That blockbuster was a top-grossing flick of its time, yet the substance and style of each movie produced contrasting results. Both employed large scale productions and faced similar challenges, but the disparity between films is more significant than initially appears on the surface.

Midway (1976) Film Review

Starring: Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum, Pat Morita

Directed By: Jack Smight

The bicentennial film’s credits dub its subject as the “turning point of the war in the Pacific.  Told wherever possible with actual film from combat.” Most of the action scenes are pulled from period combat footage and preceding war movies like Tora! Tora! Tora!. The insertion of footage from the 1970 Pearl Harbor epic and companion war films is done poorly. At one point, the intermingled footage appears to result in Japanese aircraft attacking Japanese ships.

The decision to replace, rather than create, action scenes is a defining shortcoming of the 1976 Midway. The technique ages the film in an era defined by seminal special effects. Blockbusters Jaws (1975) and Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) changed the industry, but Midway used generic production. Whether it was a stylistic choice or production limitations, the action elements of the war movie do not hold up.

Midway is not like recreationist films A Bridge Too Far (1977) or The Longest Day (1962). Jack Smight’s star-studded war film primarily cast aging names. Companion epics blended rising and established names. Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, and James Coburn are veteran names who mostly bloated the bill.

Fonda’s portrayal of Admiral Chester Nimitz is the only one who contributed to the overall film. The actor, who also portrayed a similar character for In Harm’s Way (1965), waxes folksy yarns to put the battle in perspective. His fellow actors had a negligible effect on the movie.

Midway is unmistakably Charlton Heston’s show. Heston takes the audience from the battle’s inception in naval intelligence to the skies as a pilot. His role as the hero ties the story of a sprawling and complex battle together, but stretches reality in ways that are underwhelming Hollywood historical license.

The story itself contains a surprisingly progressive outlier. The patriotic epic displays cultural sensitivity towards Japan through a unique story. The son of Heston’s character lobbies his father to intervene on behalf of his Japanese girlfriend’s interned family. The subplot has merit as an individual story, but distracts from a movie where viewers realistically want to immerse themselves in a war epic.

Overall, the film is a dry portrayal of a stunning battle without any lasting performances or scenes. The cameos are tired and the action lacks the ingenuity to stand out as a blockbuster. Midway is not much more than a dated spectacle.

Trivia: Future TV stars Tom Selleck and Erik Estrada both have minor roles in Midway.

Midway (2019) Movie Review

Starring: Ed Skrein, Luke Evans, Patrick Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Aaron Eckhart

Directed By: Roland Emmerich

Despite appearances, the 2019 Midway film is not a regurgitation of the previous Midway or Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001). Roland Emmerich’s film is less concerned with being mired in high-level strategy. Instead, the film offers an engaging cinematic timeline without being bogged down in one subplot for too long.

Midway follows a small core of characters through Pearl Harbor, the Marshall Islands, Doolittle Raid, and Coral Sea. It has two primary sets of protagonists: pilots aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise and the upper level command of Admiral Chester Nimitz and intelligence officer Edwin Layton.

While the quick-hit nature of the script skips over facts without fully explaining them, it successfully accomplishes the depiction of a large scale battle with dozens of critical characters.  The quality CGI reenactments of the Pacific Theater and well-selected characters provide an overall concept of the battle.

The film does introduce a series of minor historical points that are never fully explored. Issues with torpedo technology, the return of Jimmy Doolitle through China, and the presence of director John Ford on Midway are briskly incorporated into the script. While the brevity moves the film along, the end result is a cluster of random stories. Each would have had meaningful significance if better selection incorporated them into the main story.

For the most part, Midway follows the number one rule of a blockbuster trying to appeal to a wide audience: the action leads to additional action. The writing is not particularly inventive, but the movie is a solid war flick. It also honors veterans without fanatical patriotism. For a film whose trailer look likes a CGI-dominated Pearl Harbor remake, the 2019 Midway is far more entertaining than expected.

Who War It Better?

Both Midway movies faced unique cinematic challenges: depict a large-scale battle dominated by aerial sequences. With several key historical figures and countless role players, key moments were decided in war rooms and cockpits alike. This is a less cinematically compelling setting than traditional land battles, where the intimacy of small units creates a more natural story board.

Unless the director was willing to go to great lengths to imitate aerial scenes in The Battle Of Britain, Top Gun, or Dunkirk, how the movies created the action component of the film was key. Roland Emmerich’s action succeeded while Jack Smight’s was ineffective. While the CGI does not reset the standard for war films, it is a much better visual than intermixed war footage. At the very least, it is an original accomplishment for Emmerich to hang his hat on.

Story selection (as always) was the most critical aspect of both movies. Neither film had an outstanding script, but Emmerich’s final product was much more effective than his counterpart. Instead of a catch-all fictitious character, focusing on a handful of key characters gave a much cleaner theatrical product.

While there is a fair amount of star excess in both films, the Emmerich version was acted with much more gravitas. The fleet of wooden day player cameos does not reoccur in the 2019 version. Every character was an improvement on a series of stars playing officers in a generic fashion.

Conclusion: In story, technology, direction, and performance, the 2019 Midway succeeded as a better film than its 1976 predecessor in depicting the crucial World War II battle.

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