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Review: ‘Midway’ celebrates heroism with an old-fashioned approach to the epic war drama

Aaron Eckhart as Lt. Commander Jimmy Doolittle in the movie ‘Midway’
Aaron Eckhart as Lt. Commander Jimmy Doolittle in the movie “Midway.”
(Alan Markfield/Lionsgate)

“Midway” is so square, so old-school and old-fashioned, it almost feels avant-garde. Ambiguity is not its goal, nor is nihilism its motivating philosophy. It aims to celebrate heroism, sacrifice, determination and grit, and if you don’t like that it really does not care.

Though it’s appearing some 70 years after the epochal World War II battle it re-creates — and more than 40 years after a Hollywood film with the same name on the same subject — this “Midway,” as directed by Roland Emmerich and written by Wes Tooke, pays no attention to the notion that times have changed.

This is a film where men stand on top of bars when they have important speeches to make, where dialogue like “that’s the bravest damn thing I’ve ever seen” and “let’s take it upstairs to the old man” is thick on the land, and an officer who neglects his wife to help fight the war promises he will “spend the rest of my life making it up to her.”

Though it is unlikely to win any awards for its words, “Midway” has two things going for it. It’s based on the exploits of real men who did truly heroic things in a battle that changed the direction of the Pacific War, and it has Emmerich’s gift for epic images.

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A director best known for science fiction extravaganzas like “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow” (though he also helmed the Revolutionary War historical drama “The Patriot”), Emmerich knows his way around stirring visuals.

Led by cinematographer Robby Baumgartner and production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli, the “Midway” visual team managed to convincingly re-create nautical action, complete with swooping planes and massive aircraft carriers, on a soundstage surrounded by blue screen walls.

Although the 1976 “Midway” boasted many stars — including Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum, Toshiro Mifune and more — this year’s version takes a different tack.

The bigger stars on the marquee do cameos as Navy bigwigs (Woody Harrelson is Adm. Chester W. Nimitz! Dennis Quaid is Adm. William “Bull” Halsey!) while solid young actors including Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Nick Jonas and Mandy Moore carry the brunt of the dramatic action.

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Also noteworthy is that the filmmakers have taken pains to present the Japanese in as even-handed a way as possible. In fact “Midway” begins with a 1937 heart-to-heart chat that starts in subtitled Japanese between Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) and Tokyo-stationed U.S. Naval Intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Wilson).

“Japan is at a crossroads,” the admiral, whose life has been threatened for being too moderate, tells Layton. “Don’t push us into a corner.”

Cut to 1941 — Dec. 7, to be exact — where the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and, in particular, the sinking of the battleship USS Arizona are re-created with considerable oomph.

At sea nearby is the massive aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, home base to hot dog pilot Dick Best (Skrein), a gum-chewer from New Jersey whose gifts as an aviator are overshadowed by a hot-headed desire to throw caution about the Japanese fleet to the winds and “put a 500-pound bomb down their smokestack” as soon as possible.

While Best, aided by ever-understanding wife Ann (Moore), has to learn to moderate his temper to become a better leader of men, Layton, now stationed at Pearl, has to convince his dubious superiors he knows what he’s talking about when he insists that the Japanese are up to something involving the tiny but strategic atoll known as Midway.

Though the exploits of the Navy pilots, particularly the remarkable ones of the real-life Best, are at the heart of “Midway,” the film also finds the space to include both submarine action and the raid on Tokyo led by Army Lt. Col. James Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart.)

In fact, in an attempt to convey multiple stories, “Midway” introduces so many characters it can be difficult to track who is who and hard to figure what the exact story of the battle is.

The fact that heroes were involved, however, is the one thing that does come through loud and clear, and that, Emmerich and company no doubt feel, is the thing that really counts.

'Midway'
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of war violence and related images, language and smoking

Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes

Playing: In general release
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