There’s a scene about halfway through the film where we’re introduced to John Ford, the real life film icon known for making some of the finest westerns of Hollywood’s Golden Age. In the film he has specifically come to Midway looking to heroically film the action. In reality it was a nothing posting, where Ford thought he’d make the best of it by making films about the quiet everyday life on the front. Ford’s documentaries, including THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY, are on Netflix. They’re riveting, harrowing, intensely humane and touching. Everything that MIDWAY isn’t.
MIDWAY is an American made, Chinese funded glamorization about the Second World War. It is exactly as subtle and disgusting as it sounds.
Telling a heavily skewed take on the battle of Midway Island, where the film takes its name, this is an all around dated film that would have been more at home with rightly forgotten time capsules like KNOW YOUR ENEMY: JAPAN. It relegates the Japanese to the part of cowardly distant invaders without personality or soul, and elevates the American and Chinese as downtrodden underdogs only seeking to live a simple life with values that the world entire should hold dear. In one of the numerous tone deaf and painfully stilted moments, a downed pilot is surrounded by Chinese farmers, none of whom speak English, all demanding to know who he is. They spot his parachute and deduce him being an American. Suddenly their leader bursts out, in English, “you bombed the Japs?” Well boy howdy, did he bomb them, the American says. There’s much cheering, and everyone wants to shake his hand for a job well done.
It was at this point I had to pause and check my calendar. It still was the year 2019, and last I checked I had not gone insane. Yet here I was watching a movie that seemed to imagine it was the 1940s and this kind of thing was still somehow acceptable.
MIDWAY is a movie made for a very specific audience, and I can’t imagine that audience is anyone under the age of 40. It believes without question that America is not just the chosen land of all that is good and holy, but that they were the true underdogs wronged in that whole World War business. It’s not so much a movie as it is a political statement. There is only the vaguest sense of drama or character, and in its place is endless posturing and re-enactments of things that may have happened, all which are now told through a perverted game of telephone where the operator is wearing one of those “thank you for your service” caps. It fills the movie with notable character actors, all who have proven themselves in long and varied careers, and has them spout gibberish lines that flat out state intentions or character motivations without nuance or grace. (“This is the man who told us this was going to happen” is used as an introduction.) The leading man of the story, Ed Skrein, goes for a strange New Jersey via Futurama’s Scruffy the Janitor accent, and spotting where he slips up becomes a far more interesting pastime than the film itself.
This isn’t anything new by any measure. Any war film is essentially a glorification, and there are only a rare few films that actually depict the true inhumanity that is war. They’re also all inherently political, because that is their very nature. But MIDWAY stands out by not just being giddy about the prospect of being a glorification; it revels in romanticizing the war. Everyone involved is a Big Damn Hero, ripped straight from the pages of boys own adventure stories, and even those that question their courage need but a pep talk from their brothers in arms before they charge back into battle. Fear is reserved for The Enemy, and they are a faceless horde, often confused and always intimidated by the sheer might of America. A particularly jarring moment comes during a fierce bombing raid, when a pair of Japanese captains come out on deck of their ship to marvel at the bravery of American pilots. No such scene is offered to the Japanese.
These films were made by the boatload throughout the 40s and all the way up to the 70s, when the previous version of this film came out. Today these films have more value as vague curiosities, relics of an era that we luckily grew out of as a society. Making a new one today that doesn’t hold even a shred of irony at the audaciousness of the situation is certainly a choice.
The problem is that MIDWAY isn’t interested in history as a tool for learning, it is only interested in enforcing pre-held notions of black and white. It’s retroactive propaganda, serving to create a false memory that creates a new divide at a time when America has become the expansionist military force that it felt threatened by when Japan was an empire. Even the advertising for the film evokes a past era of propaganda. Character posters display slogans like “loose lips sink ships!” and “bring our boys home!” with one of the only female characters in the film, Mandy Moore, doing exactly what she does in the film: worrying over her big strong men.
Which reminds me, there’s even a scene where a female character complains to her husband that he’s always working late. The husband then gives her the “little ol’ lady” explanation of how important his work is, and she responds by saying she’s going to go make him a sandwich.
It’s not played for laughs, but laugh I did, incredulously and hard, in a way reserved only for the most baffling nonsense which otherwise would make you facepalm your hand through your forehead.
On a purely technical level the movie is watchable, even if it looks small and cheap compared to the budget. The attack on Pearl Harbor visually cribs from Michael Bay, as if his film from 2001 is somehow now the definitive guide to emotionally connecting with the attack, but it ends up feeling like a handful of guys flailing on a single boat set. There’s a lot to complain about Bay’s film too, but the spectacle wasn’t one of those things. The effects range from passable to cartoony, and the soundtrack is like someone threw a Taiko drum and a synthesizer into a plummeting elevator.
And all that would amount to just another run of the mill action flick if the content wasn’t so nauseating.
MIDWAY is released in Finland on Friday 8.11.2019.