Movie review

With Roland Emmerich in the director’s chair for “Midway,” there was reason to worry as to what the final product would be. Emmerich, after all, is the man responsible for 1996’s big-boom sci-fi blockbuster “Independence Day” and 1998’s “Godzilla.” You know, the really cheesy one, not to be confused with this summer’s way-ponderous “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.”

Emmerich movies are known for their splashy special effects, and in that regard “Midway” certainly does not disappoint. In re-creating the pivotal World War II naval battle, the director and his technical team serve up state-of-the-art computer-generated sequences of air and sea combat starting with the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, extending to scenes devoted to Jimmy Doolittle’s 30-seconds-over-Tokyo raid in April 1942 and culminating with the main event in June of that same year.

With Navy dive bombers roaring down on the Japanese fleet through storms of antiaircraft fire, and aircraft carriers exploding into massive gouts of flames, the effects work rivals the likes of “Saving Private Ryan” and, well, “Independence Day.” It’s spectacular and realistic-looking.

That’s to be expected. What’s not expected is how serious-minded and well-acted the picture is. A great deal of the credit for that should go to screenwriter Wes Tooke, who has crafted a screenplay that sticks remarkably closely to the facts, at least, as such things go in movies of this type. That means, among other things, no superfluous romantic subplots of the type that marred the 1976 version of this story, also titled “Midway.”

Unlike the earlier version — which was top-heavy with big stars of the likes of Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Glenn Ford and Robert Mitchum doing stolid work — Emmerich chose instead to populate his cast with solid, mostly B-list actors such as Patrick Wilson, Aaron Eckhart, Dennis Quaid and Ed Skrein. With the exception of Skrein, who has the flashiest role playing a hotshot dive-bomber pilot named Dick Best, the work of the others is strong and understated. All are portraying actual participants in the battle, and that presumably may have dissuaded the filmmakers from taking too many liberties with the storyline.

Wilson is thoughtful in the role of Edwin Layton, a Navy Intelligence officer whose analysis of coded Japanese naval dispatches convinces him that the Japanese plan to attack the island of Midway and prompts  him to urge his superiors to prepare a strike at the enemy task force. Woody Harrelson, playing Adm. Chester Nimitz, believes Layton’s analysis, unlike more skeptical top-level Navy brass, and sets in motion the operation to attack the enemy fleet.

One of the great strengths of the picture is the way it gives substantial screen time to the Japanese high command and the thinking that went into the Midway battle plan. Etsushi Toyokawa, in the role of Japan’s greatest wartime strategist, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, brings impressive gravity to his portrayal of a man who had grave misgivings about the wisdom of attacking the U.S. but, being a thoroughly loyal officer, devoted himself to developing a well-thought-out operation.

Midway, and the earlier Battle of Coral Sea, briefly alluded to in the movie, marked the first naval engagements in which battling surface fleets were never in sight of each other. Air power alone won it, and in so doing changed the face of warfare forever. It was a turning point worthy of no-nonsense treatment, and “Midway” rises to the challenge of portraying it with the respect it deserves.

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★★★½ “Midway,” with Ed Skrein, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Patrick Wilson, Aaron Eckhart, Etsushi Toyokawa, Nick Jonas. Directed by Roland Emmerich, from a screenplay by Wes Tooke. 138 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sequences of war violence and related images, language and smoking. Opens Nov. 8 at multiple theaters.