In ways both large and small, “Midway” may be the most realistic war movie you’ve ever seen, as those involved in the production of this World War II action film, including naval historians, have touted it to be.
That’s not to say it’s as real as “Saving Private Ryan.” In this vividly choreographed and mostly historically accurate telling of the 1942 Battle of Midway — a pivotal naval battle precipitated by Japan’s attack, just six months earlier, on Pearl Harbor — the violence is strictly PG-13 level. There are no heads vaporizing in puffs of pink brain matter. But the action, particularly the aerial combat, is impressively, and immersively, choreographed. And the Japanese, while clearly the enemy, are shown to be capable of great bravery as well as cruelty.
On a grand, aircraft carrier scale, director Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day”) lays out the story with admirable fidelity to the broad strokes of military intelligence and strategy, opening his tale with a focus on naval intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) who would come to buck Washington brass.
Layton argued that Japan’s next secret target, after Pearl Harbor and the Coral Sea, would not be the South Pacific, but a tiny, previously insignificant atoll in the North Pacific, roughly halfway between Asia and the West Coast of the United States.
Intercepted communications from the Japanese, which included references to an unknown objective code-named “AF,” were confirmed to refer to Midway after a Navy cryptanalyst sent out a fake message about a failure of Midway’s drinking water supply, and the Japanese took the bait, revealing their plans.
All the central characters in “Midway” — and even a few of the smaller ones — are based on real people, and include what, at times, seem to be extraneous, even bizarrely specific personal details. Just Google “Admiral Halsey” and “shingles.” Dennis Quaid’s character — yes, the one referred to in the Paul McCartney song “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” — is removed from duty because of a stress-induced rash.
What about other tiny roles? That heroic sailor (Nick Jonas) who leaps into the cockpit of a fighter plane parked on the deck of a carrier to shoot down a dive-bombing Japanese Zero? A real guy. And the eccentric naval cryptographer (Brennan Brown) who liked to wear bedroom slippers and a bathrobe to work? Also real.
But the attention to such granular verisimilitude creates, paradoxically, a kind of imbalance. In addition to Wilson’s Layton, “Midway” also follows several other narrative threads, including those of hotshot fighter pilot Dick Best (Ed Skrein); Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart), who, after a mission, was forced to ditch his plane in Japanese occupied China; and Admiral Chester Nimitz, played by his uncanny lookalike Woody Harrelson, wearing a white wig.
There are so many featured players and marquee names that many of the film’s human elements are given short shrift. It’s a historical movie so crowded with, well, people — real people — that most of them doesn’t feel like they’re made of flesh and blood.
Sure, Best and Layton have wives who worry about them (Mandy Moore and Rachael Perrell Fosket) and kids they love. It’s all right up there on the screen, amid the clash and clang of the Big Battle. But the consequences of that battle — articulated by Best as “If we lose, the Japanese own the West Coast: Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles will burn” — sometimes feel no more significant than the outcome of a sporting event. In the aftermath of a bomb or a torpedo finding its mark, characters whoop and holler, as if cheering a touchdown.
Military authenticity isn’t the problem here. “Midway” tells a story that’s vividly and viscerally rendered, with all the entertainment value of a big, old-fashioned war movie, cutting back and forth between the home front and front line.
But the kiss-kiss never really registers with quite the same impact as the bang-bang.