Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Released the Friday before Veterans Day, this film about World War II is meant to capitalize on the holiday. Arguably, it is a tribute to those in the military by depicting the service-members who fought, specifically those who fought in the Pacific Ocean from December 1941 to June 1942, which were the first months of the United States entering WWII. This film certainly honors a half-dozen or more, American sailors and leaders who were crucial during that time period. The problem is that a lot of stuff happens, meaning several battles and incidents between the Americans and the Japanese occurred in those six months and director Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day) wants to depict every single one. Unfortunately, it just becomes too much for Emmerich to cram into two hours. He’s able to get a good deal of spectacle, watching as bullets fly and bombs explode, ships sink and planes crash, but what he gains in war violence, he loses in character development and character engagement.
Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) was three hours in length and that film only depicts the first, three months or so of America’s entry into the war. Bay’s film depicts the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the Doolittle Raid on April 18, 1942. Emmerich’s film depicts both those events and more, culminating in the Battle of Midway, which began on June 4 of that year. The Battle of Midway was so significant that two films prior to this have been made depicting it. The first was Richard Fleischer’s Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). The other was Jack Smight’s Midway (1976). Both those films were two hours in length. All in all, Emmerich has material that probably requires six hours to depict. Yet, he squeezes it all into less than half that amount and it’s just too compressed. It’s not enough time to depict it all coherently and with much impact emotionally.
Ed Skrein (Alita: Battle Angel and Deadpool) stars as Richard H. Best, aka Dick, a pilot in the U.S. Navy who flew dive bombers. He came to be a commander of the squadron that flew from the USS Enterprise. The USS Enterprise was the aircraft carrier that participated the most in the Pacific theater of WWII. It was present at both the attack of Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway. Dick was that vessel’s best fly-boy. He was married and had a daughter who lived in Hawaii. He’s initially described as a cowboy. He’s the most cocky of any of the other sailors or pilots. For him, he has to reevaluate that cockiness when it’s juxtaposed against his abilities as a leader over men who don’t have the cockiness or confidence that he has and who are legitimately scared of not returning to base.
Unfortunately, this film is juggling so much and so many other characters that a character arc or thematic development around Dick gets lost in the overabundance here. The incredible juggling act could be forgiven, especially for the balls that it drops, if the film had truly delivered on the spectacle. Spectacle is always enhanced with better character development, but, in lieu of engaging with the persons depicted in a full way, a film can still be a knockout based squarely on the visuals alone. Emmerich is known for his spectacles and being able to deliver that knockout. However, if you compare the visuals here with Pearl Harbor, it’s clear that there is no comparison. Bay did a far better job in depicting the fire, chaos and carnage of the infamous 1941 day with more verisimilitude. Emmerich just vomits up a lot of CGI falseness that doesn’t sell the impact of the death and destruction of that day, as it should. Yes, later during the Battle of Midway, the dive bombing sequences are fairly well done, but it’s still difficult to care about what’s happening in them.
Patrick Wilson (The Conjuring and Aquaman) co-stars as Edwin T. Layton, an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy. The film opens with Edwin in Tokyo, as an attaché or someone working in concert with the American Embassy in Japan. He meets Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the man who would command the Japanese fleet in the Pacific, fighting against the Americans in the Battle of Midway. It becomes Edwin’s job to predict what Yamamoto is going to do and help devise a strategy to stop Yamamoto. Edwin helped devise strategy with Admiral Nimitz, played by Woody Harrelson (Zombieland and The Hunger Games). Admiral Nimitz was the official counterpart to Yamamoto, but, according to this film, Nimitz relied a lot on Edwin.
We get a bit more on Edwin like a bit of his home-life and his guilt. What’s learned is that Edwin in several ways predicted the attack on Pearl Harbor, but he feels responsible for not pushing his prediction harder. He is able to push his prediction about the attack on the Midway Islands. If this film weren’t so cluttered with so many other characters, I would argue that Edwin is actually the protagonist. His struggles were actually more interesting. His relationship with the code-breakers that helped him make his predictions were also more interesting, even if it felt a bit derivative of The Imitation Game (2014). I would have preferred if the film spent more time with Edwin than its numerous divergences, such as its depiction of the Doolittle Raid, which constitutes a series of scenes that could have been excised from this film without hurting it.
Speaking of which, there’s a lot more that could be excised like the myriad of young white actors who portray the various sailors in this narrative. The film tries to focus on them, but, again, not enough time is devoted to them to make us really care about any of them. Most are virtually indistinguishable and their deaths barely register with any kind of emotional resonance. Some of the actors are notable because they’re quasi-famous on their own. The only one who is really notable is pop star, Nick Jonas. Yet, his cachet is not much more than that of Harry Styles in Dunkirk (2017) and probably just as effective, if to say not effective at all. Nevertheless, the scene involving filmmaker John Ford being on Midway Islands during the Japanese attack was a funny bit.
Rated PG-13 for war violence, language and smoking.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 18 mins.