Midway and Seberg (Movie Reviews)

MIDWAY * * * 1/2 and SEBERG * *1/2

I tend to love a late-60s Hollywood biopic and not a WW2 strategy battle epic, so two new films have my expectations flummoxed.

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Roland Emmerich’s Midway is not a remake of the film from 1976, though it certainly could be, and it is in spirit. Like that film, Emmerich’s massive adventure – a one hundred million dollar indie produced primarily with Chinese capital is an “all-star” epic following many storylines and aiming to portray the actual strategies and tactics involved in the Battle of Midway in June, 1942 as much as possible. It is resolutely old-fashioned and surprisingly compelling; I enjoyed it far more than I expected to.

The 1976 Midway was essentially a sequel to 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora! which depicted the attack on Pearl Harbor (Emmerich’s film handily includes that attack, saving us from having to watch Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor from 2001). Both films came in the wake of other star-studded battle historical epics such as The Longest Day (1962), Battle of the Bulge (1965) and Battle of Britain (1969); these films inevitably had their multitudinous male stars’ faces in little boxes covering much of the poster, and ultimately became Sunday afternoon TV staples, where, with ads, they could stretch well into a third hour. Once most of the big WW2 battles had been portrayed, or war-weariness had set in, the template simply pivoted to become the ‘disaster movie’, and films like Earthquake, Airport, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure replaced war with catastrophe but told their stories the same way – big stars (and lots of them), multiple storylines, long running times, short scenes leading up to the ultimate conflagration.

Roland Emmerich became the new ‘disaster movie King’ in the 1990s and 2000s with a string of films that followed the 1970s template, including Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. So coming full circle to Midway feels like a natural move for him (if insane for anyone else): he’s simply returning to the source of his style. And Midway is unmistakably in the Roland Emmerich style, down to the captions constantly alerting us to the day and date (and, as we reach the main event, the time of day).

Unlike the 1976 Midway, Emmerich has access to newer information: that published in 1985 as And I Was There by Rear Admiral Edwin T. Layton, portrayed in the new movie by Patrick Wilson. Layton and his colleague Joseph Rochefort broke Japanese code that led to the US’s victorious strategy at Midway, and this storyline – necessarily absent from the ’76 film – gives Emmerich’s version more strategic depth.

Depth is not the strong point of the dialogue, which is often jingoistic and artificial: “Men like Dick Best are the reason we’re going to win this war.” But that’s Emmerich, and, indeed, the genre. The film is at its worst – as genre examples ever were – when trying to depict the warriors at home, with their spouses or kids. I’m going to shatter all my politically correct credentials by suggesting that films like this shouldn’t even try to include ‘domestic scenes’ (and, therefore, female characters). Those are the “go to the bathroom” scenes. Everyone knows why we’re here: to see the strategy and then see the battle.

This is a film free from dramatic nuance and irony; it’s about as subtle as the attack on Pearl Harbor itself. But (dialogue aside) it’s a very good history lesson in movie form; you’d be a Pacific War geek indeed to not come away with at least a couple of new nuggets.

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Dialogue is the worst part, too, of Seberg, but there are other problems. On paper this film had every possibility of working: Kristen Stewart is absolutely the right actor to play iconoclastic Hollywood / French New Wave actress Jean Seberg, and this period of Seberg’s life – 1968-1971 – is absolutely ripe for dramatisation.

Like Seberg, Stewart was given massive Hollywood exposure in a huge tentpole film while still a teenager, then found greater artistic value in smaller, more director-driven films in France, before returning to work in the US while stirring the celebrity gossip pot with (vaguely) unorthodox sexuality. Unlike Seberg, Stewart was not targeted by the FBI for her involvement with a civil rights activist – Hakim Jamal – and her donations to the Black Panthers.

So Seberg’s story is a great one, and Kristen Stewart, a truly magnetic actor, is a great Seberg. But the dialogue is excruciating, and it makes the actors saying it look bad: you can’t act this stuff properly. Also, the film, directed by Benedict Andrews (Una), while theoretically on Seberg’s side, spends half its time on a made-up FBI agent played by Jack O’Connell as he struggles with his conscience and considers subverting the agency. This is a massive dramatic mistake. O’Connell’s character is meant to represent the FBI, and there is no historical evidence that the FBI ever softened its stance on Seberg, but the film seems to be saying, ‘don’t worry, there were some good guys spying on you, hounding you, trashing your reputation and destroying your life, too.’ Also, O’Connell’s scenes require a fictional wife, wasting Margaret Qualley in ‘domestic scenes’ as dramatically lame as those in Midway.

Watching Seberg is to become increasingly disheartened, as it strays deeper into bathos, incredulity and cliché as it goes on. It’s very disappointing. Who knew that the film I had high hopes for, a film that had all the ingredients I liked, would be such a bummer, while a film made in a genre I couldn’t care less about, by a director I generally find crass, would prove so relatively rich? C’est le cinema.