At the Movies: Midway

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Courtesy of the National WWII Museum

Those who can, do; those who can’t become critics of those who can.

A very dear friend of mine, a very knowledgeable man with a great love of the Orient, went on a lengthy tour of various oriental and Pacific countries and islands, many of which had figured in the battles of World War Two. Since he knows far more about the Orient than I will ever know, I gave him a copy of William Manchester’s brilliant and personal account of his experiences in the Pacific Theater, Goodbye Darkness. My friend read about the Battle of Midway as he was sailing past it and came back eager to see Director Roland Emmerich’s movie about that miraculous US Navy victory.

My friend and I had similar, very strong reactions to the movie, but because we’re birds of a feather, and because I had heard, vaguely, that the movie had been lambasted by the critics, I decided to do something I don’t usually do. I took time to read—no, let me amend that—to glance at some of the reviews. I don’t mean the online reviews—like this one—but the reviews that were written for mainstream newspapers here and in the United Kingdom.

I was appalled by what I read.

Dorothy Parker set a horrible and lasting precedent with her famously, wittily acid reviews of books and plays. Ever since, snippy little wannabes, with neither her erudition, her wit, nor her taste, have been trying to write feeble, snarky pages in a vain attempt to imitate what she was capable of achieving in a sentence. There are any number of perfectly valid reasons not to like any given movie, book, play, painting, whatever, but it takes intelligence greater than a mean-spirited adolescent’s to express where and why the artist’s attempt missed the mark. Nasty and juvenile ad hominem attacks do not qualify, and much of what I read was of that quality.

Let’s start by looking at the CGI.

Early movies about World War Two—those made during or shortly after the war—frequently made use of actual documentary footage of real events, incorporating it into the staged film very effectively. Whether that could have been done here or not, I have no way of knowing: the technology may exist, but the footage may not; or the footage may exist, but not the appropriate technology. Consequently, if you go to see Midway, go with the expectation that you will be seeing CGI, lots of it. Is it as good as the CGI in all those Marvel comic book movies that dominate at the box office these days? I have no idea nor any way of judging, nor am I interested in watching a comic book superhero movie to find out.

If you go to see Midway expecting to see a classically structured piece of drama (following a hero through his trials and watching him evolve and grow through experience in ways that are, ideally, applicable and instructive to the viewer) you’re going to be disappointed. There is no gratifying epiphany at the end, but even if the young pilots don’t grow from A to Z, they grow a hell of a lot more than the loathsome character played by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half hour farewell to mobsters, The Irishman. That movie has garnered raves (and it is beautifully directed, acted, and filmed) for a portrait of despicable man who lives a life committing appalling crimes and is just as despicable at the end of his life as he was at the beginning. Dorothy Parker might have described it as a life that progressed from A to A. At least the young pilots and sailors who stopped the Japanese juggernaut grew enough in three days of battle to realize they were able to overcome their own fear. The very, very few that survived, that is.

And that brings me to what is best about Midway. Whatever else Emmerich intended to achieve, he created a chronicle of extraordinary, shining courage in the face of overwhelming odds. At the time of the Battle of Midway, the US Navy and its air force (there was no designated Air Force branch of the military during World War Two; the navy had its pilots, and the army had its, but the Air Force as we know it was not created until 1947) were grotesquely outclassed by the Japanese. The Japanese had more and better trained men; at one point, one of the Japanese admirals looks at the American planes trying to bomb his ships and sniffs contemptuously, “Amateurs!” In another scene the same admiral dismisses American pilots and sailors as “…not brave enough to die for their country.” The Japanese had many more ships, especially in the wake of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese planes were better and, according to my friend, 200-mph faster. And the American pilots were sent out to drop torpedo bombs that had a ninety-percent failure rate. (It is unclear to me if the pilots knew this or only the top brass.)

How then did America win such a decisive victory? There were many contributing factors, but essentially, it boiled down to a combination of: the Japanese greatly underestimated American resolve (save for one admiral who famously told his superiors, “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant.”); they greatly underestimated America’s industrial potential; they greatly underestimated the courage of the young men who made up America’s armed forces; they greatly underestimated the American military’s capacity for making do with what they had to make do with (in one scene, Admiral Nimitz goes to inspect a damaged aircraft carrier and is told it will take three months to repair it; he replies, “Patch it with plywood if you have to. You have three days.” and that ship sailed out three days later with men still welding the deck); and finally, the Japanese overestimated the unbreakable security of their own code [ladies like my mother had already broken it] even as they underestimated America’s capacity for cunning [a crucial piece of misinformation was deliberately sent out as bait] in setting was still one of the riskiest traps in naval history.

In terms of inequality of military might, the Battle of Midway doesn’t quite match up with the Spartan’s famous defense of Thermopylae, but in terms of raw courage, it does. If you think of Midway as a docudrama, you will not be disappointed. In fact, taken as a docudrama, Midway should be mandatory viewing in every high school classroom in America, just to remind today’s young of what their grandparents were able to do.

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2 thoughts on “At the Movies: Midway”

  1. You have wet my appetite to check it out. But as I’m a tightwad it will be when it goes to the dollar theater or is a library DVD. After the awful Pearl Harbor movie (was it really like 20 years ago) I am somewhat jaded about such modern movies. On the plus side, when the CGI is done well and with restraint (unlike the super hero and Star Wars movies of late) it can create a realism of stark and stunning reality. Something impossible to do anymore with real ships and planes unlike say the movies even into the ‘70’s and ‘80’s when actual planes were still available and flying. Even the great period movies of the ‘40s to ‘50’s with stars like Gable, Fonda, Stewart, Wayne, etc sometimes had laughable effects which were clearly models bobbing around in giant water tanks or model planes hanging from strings. Completely forgiven by the great writing, acting and directing.

    BTW, 25 minutes from Boise is a fabulous War History museum called Warhawk at the tiny Nampa, ID municipal airport. They often have airshows and provided their flying P40 for scenes in the otherwise awful aforementioned Pearl Harbor movie. New Orleans has a nice museum to.

    I had a step grandfather who was on a battle wagon “as he called them” (not Arizona) at Pearl Harbor and he was also at Midway. He was a gunner’s mate and saw lots of action. But he was very soft spoken and mild of manner so rarely talked about what he experienced. I know he saw lots of deaths so didn’t like to recall it. He has been gone some 22 years so can’t ask him about it. I took him to see the Hunt For Red October when it came out and he enjoyed that.

  2. I purposely avoided reading your review until after I had a chance to watch it for myself. Since your review of the wonderful book, Code Girls (one, two years ago?) I developed a love with the history of the World Wars. I prefer books, of course, as they are always better. This movie did not disappoint! Even knowing that we won the battle (and war), I found myself holding my breath every time our boys went out and sighing with great relief when they headed back “home”.
    One interesting thing I noticed, the Japanese soldiers were commanded to fight for the Emperor and to “do your duty” to him. Our boys had none of those types of instructions.One could say they fought from a sense of love and not duty. We need more young (and old) men like that today. We were not worthy, and we are not worthy of those men and their sacrifice.

    On an entirely different note: I am so glad Woody Harrelson was not typecast as a dimwitted idiot after his stint on Cheers. He was AMAZING as Nimitz. If ever a movie is made about Bill Clinton, Harrelson should get the lead.

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