Midway (2019)

This was a movie that I really wish I’d gotten to for the Veteran’s Day Holiday. It is a no frills salute to the Navy forces that sustained the fight in the Pacific in the months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It hews closely to the timeline of events and the key players in the Battle of Midway which happened just six months after the surprise attack and largely changed the fortunes of war for the American side. A combination of hard work, rage and intuitive luck resulted in a complete reversal of the naval status of the two nations in a very short time.

Director Roland Emmerich is known for the disaster films he has made. Whatever his dramatic limitations are, he knows how to blow things up and show destruction on a massive scale. With this subject he has found an effective outlet for his skillset. There is a reenactment of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle raid on Tokyo and subsequent Japanese attacks on China and in the Corral Sea. All of this is a lead up to the title battle which takes up the last part of the film.

There is a narrative that focuses on the life of Navy flyer Dick Best, a real hero from the period. The fact that ther is a personal story however does not make this like the other war films you have seen over the years. We get just enough of his homelife and personal doubts to see that he is a human being in this large scale picture of the war. Similarly, there is a slight story about the intelligence officer who had warned about potential dangers at Pearl Harbor before the attack, and his subsequent work with code breakers to try and determine where the next big event would be. Actor Ed Skrein plays Best as a no nonsense family man who also is fearless enough to intimidate those he is in command of. Patrick Wilson plays the quiet intelligence guy who’s guilt over the Pearl Harbor mess forces him to challenge establishment thinking about the war.

There are not quite as many personal touches for the Japanese commanders but they are presented in honest ways, suggesting their commitment and honor in what is a truly tragic us of resources. This is not a propaganda film, it is an historical document of the events and it tries to steer clear of making one side or the other more virtuous, it simply tries to tell us what happened. As a history lesson it is pretty effective. It is not hard for us to follow events and see how the strategy for Midway was evolved by both sides. Of course the thing that makes it cinematic is the CGI spectacle that we see as the conflict plays out. It is clear that this is a CGI heavy film, the work is competent but it is at times noticeable. The scale of destruction that happens probably could not be presented any other way these days in a budget that is manageable. Unlike “Saving Private Ryan”, “Midway presents the destruction without all the visceral horror that modern effects and make up are capable of. There are a few scenes where fire injuries are shown but there are no closeups on the wounded and the dead which are meant to turn our stomachs. This is a film that largely could have been made in the 1950s for it’s sensibilities.

Woody Harrelson, Aaron Eckhart, and Dennis Quaid play major historical figures, but most of their work is really background, with only a little bit of drama involved. Once again, we are presented with a reason to be eternally grateful to the “Greatest Generation”.  As far as I’m concerned that is justification enough to see the movie. The history lesson is also solid and it makes this a film that could be appropriately shown as part of a school curriculum. The drama is soft pedaled but the hard fought war and the losses that it entailed are worth a visit.


Tom Hank”s character, the real life hero Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, has a fortune cookie fortune that he looks at in one scene of this film. “Better a delay than a disaster”.  I feel a little bit as if this describes my relationship with the movie, I wanted to see it but put it off for almost a month. After the screening, I felt as if it would have been a disaster if I’d missed this movie. This is a film and a story right up my alley. It is a true life drama, with a humble hero and a group of people who all did whatr they were supposed to do. The outcome is one of the amazing stories of modern aviation.

Having recently listened to a lengthy podcast in which the work of director Clint Eastwood was somewhat criticized, I may have lowered my expectations a bit. I did think “Jersey Boys” was a misfire but “American Sniper” was an effective film about the Iraq war and the toll it took on multiple people. It was dramatically shot and there are some incredibly tense scenes in it. This film is directed in a straightforward manner as is most of Eastwood’s work. The fact that the near disaster at the center of the story remains clear and coherent is mostly a result of choices the director made about how to film it. One criticism that came up was that the side stories that explored some of Sully’s background were confusing in time and story placement, well I did not find that to be the case at all. [That is mostly the screenwriter’s responsibility]. There is a little bit of ambiguity about the process of the NTSB and how long that hearing process took, but that is hardly confusing to the story.

I did think that the script went a bit of a ways to create drama from the investigation but you have to have a little dramatic license to give the film a narrative backbone. The real themes of this film are about self doubt and doing your job. Until Arron Eckhart and Tom Hanks know what the voice recorder and aviation data reveal, there is enough doubt for even a confident man to wonder if something else could have been done. “Sully” and co-pilot Jeff Skiles knew they did the right things but only from the inside. There is plenty of PTSD to go around between them, but except for some nightmares about what might have happened if they had acted differently, we all feel confident as well.

The other theme of this movie was well expressed at the end by Captian Sullenberger when he deferred credit. It was not he alone who was the X factor. Every crew member did their job well. The cabin crew remained calm as they prepared the passengers, the passengers followed directions and helped each other, the ferry captains acted immediately and saved lives by doing so, the water rescue tem from the NYPD was in place and doing their jobs as well. I recommended another Aaron Eckhart film from a few years ago based on the same premise. “Battle L.A.” may not be a great movie, but it was great at showing how when people work together, and do their jobs to the best of their ability, the outcome is more likely than not to be success.

Hanks and Eckhart both are low key and credible as the professionals who made a difference that day on the Hudson and above. They also rock those mustaches that the real heroes appear to favor. Laura Linney as Sully’s wife does not get to do much more than talk on the phone, but it worked pretty well as a dramatic device, especially that first call after the landing. The technical crew who shot the effects and then put together a set to work on in the water are deserving of some respect as well. This was a very realistic depiction of the “forced water landing”.  In the long run, the movie does not have deep messages to impart to us, it just gives us a good condensed version of events that we can marvel at and appreciate, as we look at real people who deserve to be called heroes, even if they don’t see themselves that way.

London Has Fallen

You did not think that after a surprise financial success with “Olympus Has Fallen“, there would not be a sequel did you? Come on, there is money on the table and someone has to take it home, It might as well be Gerard Butler. I am a big fan of the original film, where Butler does his best Bruce Willis impression and the effects teams add enough firepower to take down a whole city. The premise was over the top but in complete congruence with the action films of the 80s and 90s. It was basically “Die Hard” in the White House. Just like the sequel to the original Die Hard, “London Has Fallen” keeps the characters from the original, transports them to another location, and changes directors. Babak Najafi is no Renny Harlin, but he manages to deliver the goods in sufficient quantities that there could easily be  a “Moscow Has Fallen” entry in a couple of years.

I do feel a bit guilty about all the mayhem shown in the film. There are explosions and public edifices wiped out along with what must have been thousands of civilians.  Somehow, it is not quite as disconcerting as it is to me in some other films, maybe it is the cheese factor that you start with. No one worries that much when it happens in a “Transformers” movie because the film never takes itself seriously. “Man of Steel” took itself extremely seriously, and maybe that is the difference to me. At the end of this film, all of London is being rebuilt and there will be little to remind anyone of what happened. The fact that Morgan Freeman provides the denouement instead of Aaron Eckhart’s President Asher, only underscores the fact that his sonorous voice is being used to put the button on the story.

Most of the terror attacks happen early in the movie, so the expensive effects shots are used to set us up for the cat and mouse game that makes up the majority of the film. Secret Service Agent Mike Banning(Butler) has the President with him as the terrorists chase them across the abandoned streets of London. The terrorists conveniently shut off the lights so no one will see that the street sets are not real locations and as many shootouts in the dark can be accentuated with firebursts from the tip of a machine gun. The preposterous set up involves half of the London police being replaced by an army of terrorists that no one will notice. When members of the palace guard take their weapons and gun down the German Chancellor, you know there is no logic to the film at all.

The fact that the story is nonsense does not distract from the pleasure we get from watching Agent banning kick tail and take names. When he gets to use those names in his interplay with the main terrorist on the scene, it is exactly like a moment form “Die Hard”. One thing that is a little different however is that Mike Banning is not going to let any terrorist get up five minutes later and take a dying shot. He seems to be a strong believer in the “double Tap” and when it comes to taking a man down with a knife, clearly a single insertion is not enough. When the President asks if the one killing of a terrorist with a knife in a particularly brutal way was necessary, Mike simply smiles and says, “No”.

There is no reason to take any of this as more than a program, popcorn afternoon filler. Jackie Earle Hailey, Melissa Leo, Robert Forester, and Angela Basset, all Academy Award nominated actors are collecting a paycheck. Only Basset has to leave a room for her performance, everyone else sits around a table to deliver their lines. Morgan Freeman, an Academy Award winner, does stand up a couple of times to make his presence worth third billing,  but ultimately this is Butler’s show with Eckhart in support. Cracking wise and killing a buttload of bad guys is what this film is all about. It does it efficiently and in an entertaining way, so if you want to eat your Milk Duds in the dark, this is a movie that will facilitate that. Of course all of it’s calories are empty as well.