A Brief History
On November 8, 2019, a big, really big, war movie about one of the most pivotal battles of World War II hits the big screens across the United States when Midway makes its debut. We had the opportunity to prescreen this $100 million blockbuster and found the film entertaining, though not exactly a documentary. Expect the visual treats a $100 check can write! Some big stars, excellent special effects, and lots of action make this film the action film of the year in our book.
Directed and produced by Roland Emmerich, the 11th highest grossing American director of all time and veteran of such films as Universal Soldier, Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, The Patriot, 10,000 BC, 2012, White House Down, and Independence Day: Resurgence, one can easily see that Emmerich’s experience is in science fiction and fictional action movies, not in recreating history. Still, while failing to adhere exactly to the history of the events in the earliest part of the US involvement in World War II, he does rely on real historical characters played by capable Hollywood actors and roughly recounts their contributions to turning around the war against the Japanese within a few months of the Pearl Harbor disaster.
Speaking of Pearl Harbor, a particularly good sequence in the film concerns the Japanese surprise attack on the principal American naval base in the Pacific on December 7, 1941. The Japanese point of view and internecine squabbles leading up to war with the US is effectively shown. There is a definite attempt at character development, including the family dynamic of just a few characters, but that development is somewhat choppy and inconsistent. Some major persons are depicted in their wartime roles without any character development, which is kind of inconsistent. Either we go for character development or we do not! (At least in our book.) The pacing of the film is a little odd, but enough action scenes are interspersed throughout the film that the audience never gets a chance to feel bored or lost. In fact, the film seemed to fly by, in spite of its 138 minute running time! It seemed so much shorter, which is as they say, “a good thing.”
Regardless, the movie is really about action, and there is plenty of that, though again, kind of choppy editing is at work here with major parts of the battles happening often with some reference and just as often without prepping the audience for what is about to happen and why. We are quite familiar with the early history of World War II in the Pacific, and have read extensively about the Doolittle Raid, Pearl Harbor, and Midway. Thus, we knew what to expect and why things happened the way they did, but someone with no prior historical knowledge of the Midway battle and its setting might get confused. (We say might, but we mean “will.”)
Minor flaws in the film include things such as a pronounced lack of American fighter planes taking part in the battles. We see the dive bombers and torpedo bombers doing their thing, but where are the F4F Wildcats? The other American planes and Japanese planes are super realistic looking (as are the ships), but the lack of American fighters is kind of weird. It does not ruin the battle scenes, just provides something for us to nit pick about. Another nit to pick is the final dive bombing scene in which American Dauntless dive bombers are absolutely swarming the Japanese ships in a concentration we find unrealistic, with many of the planes being brought down by anti-aircraft fire. In real life, Japanese fighters (A6M Zero) took the main toll of American planes. I could be wrong, but an early scene in the Battle of Midway shows a bunch of American B-26 bombers attacking the Japanese fleet, when only 4 such planes were actually based on Midway and those were adapted for dropping torpedoes, not high level horizontal bombing. There should have been B-17 bombers shown dropping bombs in a conventional way and not hitting the Japanese ships. Just saying… There was a LOT of anti-aircraft fire from smaller caliber guns (20mm and 40mm?) on the ships being attacked, but not seen from the 4 or 5 inch guns that would really make the big explosions in the sky that were shown. Another minor point that the majority of movie goers would never think of, and it really did not matter to us at the time, either. Finally, another kind of egregious unrealistic depiction is the American hero pilot Dick Best dropping a bomb from his Dauntless dive bomber at a ludicrous altitude of only 100 feet or less off the deck of a Japanese carrier, and at a swooping angle instead of a much higher altitude and steeper angle for the real bomb drop. Well, the visual sure was cool, we must say, even if it did not accurately reflect what happened.
The excellent cast includes Woody Harrelson as Admiral Chester Nimitz, Ed Skrein as Lt. Dick Best (kind of the main character), Patrick Wilson as code breaker Lt. Cdr. Edwin Layton (a co-main character) and Dennis Quaid as the rough and ready Admiral “Bull” Halsey. A notable performance is turned in by Luke Evans as Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky, a real life guy that had a lot to do with the American success at Midway. Aaron Eckhart plays Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle quite well, too. Etsushi Toyokawa as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was a masterful casting choice as the veteran actor plays a very convincing sober and serious war master. The other actors portraying Japanese characters are also excellent in their roles. In fact, we found no fault with any of the casting or the acting.
Midway acknowledges the bravery and fortitude of both the Japanese and the Americans that fought at Midway, though the film does point out some of the Japanese brutality that was employed during the War. A notable point is made of the slaughter of over 250,000 Chinese civilians and 70,000 captured Chinese soldiers in retaliation for the Chinese assistance of the Doolittle raid airmen in their escape and evasion of Japanese forces in China after the bombing of Tokyo.
We normally expect a convincing war movie to be rated “R,” as the real gore and terror of war kind of demands some pretty graphic depictions to get the feel of the fear and anxiety of the fighters into a form the audience can relate to, but Midway is rated “PG-13” and we were not disappointed, which surprised us. The filmmakers adroitly used the limits of what they could depict to get across to the audience enough of the horror of war to make the point. Good job! Still, we could appreciate even more graphic scenes…
Overall, Midway is bound to become part of the pantheon of classic war films and is a must see for fans of World War II movies. We strongly recommend this movie to anyone that enjoys action films and appreciates eye candy battles. We also do not see any reason to keep younger children at home unless they are particularly sensitive.
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For more information, please see…
Lord, Walter. Incredible Victory: The Battle of Midway. Open Road Media, 2012.
Rigby, David. Wade McClusky and the Battle of Midway. Osprey Publishing, 2019.
Symonds, Craig. The Battle of Midway. Oxford University Press, 2013.
The featured image in this article, a scaled-down, low-resolution image of a poster for Midway, is used in an article that provides critical commentary on the film in question per fair use under the copyright law of the United States.