★★★ ½

Midway, the tale of the pivotal World War II battle that turned the tide of the Pacific theater, gets an updated portrayal through a script by Wes Tooke (Colony) and direction by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day).

After the devastating Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, American forces led by Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart) manage to pull off a raid on the Japanese mainland. As a result, the Japanese military decides to fatally cripple the United States Navy by luring them into an ambush at Midway atoll. But American cryptographers have deciphered their communications. As a result, the American military is much more prepared for dealing with the Japanese forces. Careful planning by Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) and Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) along with the brilliant execution by heroes such as Lieutenant Richard Best (Ed Skrein), Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) and others transform Japan’s expected naval coup into a resounding defeat that turns the tide of war in the Pacific.

There is so much history to tell from this era that Tooke had to carefully pick and choose which individuals to highlight. He does well in choosing Best, Doolittle, McClusky, and Nimitz. He also gives nods to other important figures, including the Japanese. Rather than being the faceless boogeyman, Tooke shows the audience that they, too, are human. It is this show of common humanity among battling forces that makes Midway more engaging than other, older war films. These moments don’t interrupt the pace; instead, they enhance it.

Emmerich’s direction of some of these scenes falls a bit short, especially considering the skill of the cast members he works with. Vital characters seem a bit leaded at times—more so than the actual people were. There are brilliant moments, but this is more a characteristic of the actor knowing what to do despite the director. Not surprisingly given his resume, his work on the battle scenes is much better.

The story, once it settles more on the Battle of Midway, focuses primarily on Best, and Ed Skrein takes the role to heart, portraying the maverick pilot and tortured commander well. Harrelson’s subdued performance lets his presence shine through without stealing scenes. Dennis Quaid gives an excellent performance as the ailing commander Halsey.

The special effects are nothing short of phenomenal. The crew worked hard to bring more realistic timing to aerial and air-to-sea combat than the often acrobatic, romanticized scenes of other films. The danger of flying, both in and out of combat, is graphically represented, and the attack on Pearl Harbor feels real, raw, and dizzying. The sets, from a USO lounge to the minutest detail of an aircraft carrier all represent the age and establish authentic scenes throughout the film.

Fans of touchy-feely war stories aren’t likely to get much out of Midway, and deep history buffs are sure to find inaccuracies. But anyone that enjoys a good reality-based war picture is certain to find plenty to like. Midway never stalls, delivering a solid payload among a historic ocean of bad, agenda-driven, and trope-laden genre films.