By clear design, “Midway,” a film centered on the World War II battle of the same name in the Pacific Ocean, released Veterans Day weekend to box office success. But this success, a clear example of the power of targeted marketing, is undeserved, as the film itself disappoints at almost every turn. Despite boasting a powerhouse of performers, the bones of the film are too brittle to offer the cast any substance. Overused tropes, one-note characters and a general hyper-American regard for what the nature of war looks like are the spit upon which the film roasts itself.
For a film centered on World War II, very little is actually said about it. Rather, the film looks on the atrocities of World War II with red-, white- and blue-colored glasses, contextualizing the period exclusively within an American field of vision. Aside from a too-convenient time jump, the film opens with a graphic reproduction of the attack on Pearl Harbor, careening through explosions interceded by what should read as bold heroics. The images are jarring and brutal, clearly meant to evoke a viscerally empathetic response.
But empathy bred from shock value is insubstantial, and given that the attack is largely the way the audience is introduced to the narrative and its players, the film seems to cut itself off at the knees in breeding emotional investment in its characters. Because the attack is the gateway through which many of the characters are introduced, the film trivializes its own tragedy by relegating character death to perform the simple function of justifying the conflict to those who survive. And what’s more, beyond the first act, these character deaths seem to have little to no consequence — if a tree falls in the battlefield, does it make a sound? Evidently, the film says no.
One of the film’s central characters, Dick Best (Ed Skrein), is most severely impacted by the events of Pearl Harbor, losing a close friend. And to a degree, this does translate into motivating his actions over the course of the film, but so do a bevy of other events that are similarly unmoored from any greater context. This is a character whose arc is meant to carry the film, but much like the reasoning behind the film’s existence, that arc is untraceable. Best doesn’t grow or change, demonstrated in the way an early scene, in which he defines himself as the most reckless and stellar flier around, is repeated at the end of the film.
Similarly, Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), whose major flaw is that other men won’t listen to him, can’t overcome the limitations the film sets up for him. And this film flaw is replicated over and over in any character it can sink its teeth into. The film is a series of generally unflawed white men doing generally heroic things — it is boring and, moreover, is something any audience will have seen over and over again. Oh, except this time Nick Jonas is there.
“Midway,” the No. 1 movie in the U.S. and a testament to the blind strength of nationalism, is one of the most confusing films released this year. It achieves this not only through its stumbling plot and hollow characters, but also in its complete disregard for the current political climate.
In a time when discourse around detainment centers has reintroduced the United States’ history of internment to the national conversation, the choice to, in 2019, release a film that depicts the Japanese as cold, methodical and calculating villains is nothing short of irresponsible. This, coupled with the liberal slinging of racial slurs, reinforces the fact that at its core, the film is lazy, tone-deaf and pandering. Over and over again, from the timing of its release to the tactless handling of its subject matter, the film rests on the laurels of a society conditioned to swallow any patriotically coated crock of nonsense that Hollywood can conjure up.
The film proves time and time again that the weight of offering a varied and nuanced depiction of this conflict is simply too heavy to hold. In its attempts to offer a comprehensive account of the “battle that turned the tide of the war,” “Midway” can’t even make it midway.
Areyon Jolivette is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].