Woody Harrelson in Midway (Photo: Lionsgate)

★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Roland Emmerich
STARS Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson

The battle of Midway was one of the great American victories during World War II, cited as a key skirmish in altering the course of the war in the Pacific. Why, then, has Hollywood been unable to give this historic event the motion picture it deserves? Even the rumble between the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story carries more dramatic urgency than what’s seen in the two major Midway movies to date.

If there’s one thing the 2019 version of Midway has over the 1976 version of Midway, it’s that it serves as a more accurate historical record. The ’76 edition boasted of an all-star cast (Heston! Fonda! Mifune! Mitchum! Even Selleck!) and a Sensurround presentation, but it suffered from too much stock footage and too much time spent on dreary subplots involving fictional characters (particularly Heston’s Captain Matt Garth). This new edition at least keeps its focus on the actual participants and their heroic deeds.

But at what price? All of the famous figures — Nimitz (Woody Harrelson), Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart), Halsey (Dennis Quaid), and more — are on hand, but scripter Wes Tooke turns them into token matinee characters, exhibiting few characteristics save for those closely attributed to the actors playing them (Harrelson’s slyness, Eckhart’s confidence, Quaid’s growl). As supposedly dynamic individuals, they’re so thinly drawn that the stars might as well be playing any Tom, Dick or Halsey. As for the co-leads, Patrick Wilson is just fine as intelligence officer Edwin Layton, but Ed Skein’s broad turn as heroic pilot Dick Best is more irritating than inspiring.

Director Roland Emmerich’s 1996 smash Independence Day won an Oscar for its special effects, but, since then, the visuals in his films seem to be getting worse, not better. Midway is naturally packed with all manner of bombs bursting in air, land and sea, but most of these action sequences fail not only because Emmerich treats them as a jumble of sound and fury and square-jawed machismo (the wartime messiness seen in Dunkirk and Saving Private Ryan rarely makes an appearance here) but also because the effects are only intermittently convincing. Most of these CGI sequences look so arcade-ready in their unconvincing slickness that it’s a wonder viewers don’t have to insert quarters every half-hour to keep the movie going.

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