Midway The Movie

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Timed for the Veteran’s Day observance this week, Lionsgate and Centropolis released the pre-holiday blockbuster, Midway, a sweeping cinematic treatment of the historic Pacific war battle. The production itself may achieve history itself for being the first film to desperately, achingly cry out for a pull down menu that says Suspend CGI.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. All pilots—even young ones not steeped in the lore of World War II aviation—will know the outlines of the Midway story and perhaps even the intimate detail. Still reeling from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the U.S. Navy is itching for a payback battle against the Imperial Japanese Navy. The opportunity arises in May and early June of 1942 in the form of an intelligence coup.

U.S. code breakers have partially untangled the Japanese Navy’s Purple code and have high confidence that an attack on Midway is imminent. You know the rest. The Navy stations a three-carrier battle group north of the strategic atoll and over a two-day period, ambushes and sinks all four Japanese carriers. The fleets never came within sight of each other.

How to tell the story? The three top bullet points are: intelligence victory; validation of Naval aviation doctrine; turning point in the Pacific war. Take it from there. Director Roland Emmerich does a fair if disjointed job of conveying the Midway story. While watching it, I found myself trying to tune out the noise—and there’s a lot of it—in search of the historical high points I know from my own reading. For reasons I suspect relate to the perceived need to blow a lot of %$#@ up on screen, Emmerich and writer Wes Tooke inserted a brief segment on Pearl Harbor and the complete distraction of the April 1942 Doolittle raid on Tokyo, plus a throwaway reference to the Battle of the Coral Sea few would get. It’s true that the Doolittle raid may have finalized draft plans to attack Midway, but it’s hardly necessary to the narrative.

It would have sufficed to show an image of Pearl Harbor aflame with a title summarizing same and, as Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. said, start the war from right there. I think even today’s stimulus-starved audiences could have figured it out.

Which leads me to wonder what Emmerich—who directed another explosion fest in Independence Day—was trying to do in this film. Movies are an industry that exists to make money, but storytelling is still part of the art. In that context, it seems odd that Emmerich would pick the Midway story, given that while the battle itself is important, the more cerebral aspect of intelligence gathering was the bigger character.

While this is conveyed well enough to understand, I wouldn’t call it exactly artful and certainly not as well as was done in the 1976 film on the same subject by the same name. That production did a more detailed and nuanced job on the intel work and the lead-in to the sea battle, especially how a flock of PBYs—the famed Strawberries—found the Japanese fleet and how a scout aircraft radio failure kept the Japanese from doing the same.

As for the battle sequences, to call them a computer-generated imagery extravaganza would be an injustice. Every year, CGI seems to improve and although Midway’s reliance on it is overdone to the point of exhaustion, you have to admire the skill involved. There are scenes where a character is moving through what is obviously a physical set—such as a ship’s companionway—and transitions into a wider view—the entire flight deck—seamlessly. Even when the eye knows it’s a digital construct, it is nonetheless stunning to watch.

Unfortunately, in the major battle scenes—the carrier bombings—the scenes take on a cartoonish quality that detracts from the storytelling. Where one or two tracer streams would have been sufficient, the director has a dozen; where one or two diving airplanes would do, we’re overwhelmed by four times as many. I really wanted to pause the damn thing and just catch my breath. Do audiences really need this overkill to get butts in the seats? I longed to see what the CGI would look like dialed back, oh, 70 percent or so.

The film has some nice touches. For example, Edwin Layton was Admiral Chester Nimitz’s intel officer and while his character appeared not at all in the 1976 version, he has a major role in the new film, played by Patrick Wilson. Layton spoke Japanese and had been a naval attaché before the war, something I didn’t know. An opening scene has him speaking with Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, which actually happened if the conversation topic might not have. The dialogue revealed Yamamoto as the reluctant warrior he was, caught between the militarists and his firsthand knowledge of U.S. industrial might.

So is this film worth the trouble and the $20 to see? Yes, if for no other reason than to gawk at the imagery. Then once you’ve seen it, find the 1976 version on a streaming service. You’ll be well versed in what happened at Midway and, Veteran’s Day notwithstanding, we all should be. And if Americans have to get their history overdosed with computer graphics, that’s better than not getting it at all.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. Despite the beauty vs over done battle scenes you write about I still believe this movie MUST be done. A few days ago an early 20’s “ influencer “ posited that we must stop teaching the history of WW2 as it’s too sad , too many people died and it’s not relevant. Then the progressive SJW’s agreed en masse overspeaking loudly others who don’t agree with their world view . Folks have complained already about Doolittle’s foray in Hornet as it’s not part of Midway and wanted December 7 th removed from the script as well …..as it is no longer important. I’m an old flatulent 60 year old Combat Veteran and apparently a curmudgeon for my desire to make this ; the SECOND Midway film. Yes ….Hollywood reviewers are complaining that we don’t need another Midway film. As it has already been done. But from the trailers and articles this is even better . In particular the Intel Officer ( whose name escapes me ) who sent out the message re the Evap at Midway was down , was most definitely not as eccentric as Hal Holbrook portrayed. As he was right about the events , he ; like those who “ whistleblowed “ the Combat failure of our Toroedoes were repaid not with praise but with career ending evaluations and assignments. It’s vital we again see Ensign Day watch the battle floating amidst it after losing EVERY SINGLE Warrior of his Torpedo Squadron. With the politically correct educators refusing to teach about this War it is even more important that this film be supported and discussed at Starbucks, not just the VFW. SFMF

  2. A couple of things:

    First – yes the CGI was a little excessive, but as every year passes, there are fewer and fewer flyable WWII aircraft, and I’m told there is not a single flying Zero on the planet.

    Second – there were exactly six – yes, six – people in the theater at 6 p.m. – ideal viewing time. All of us were over sixty years old. My comment that the number of viewers perfectly demonstrated just how poor are our schools was met with a round of applause from the other five.

    • First – Not true. Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage Collection has two A6M Zeroes and at least one of them is flyable, with the original Nakajima engine. Now, would the museum want to risk it in making a movie, particularly after a perfectly good PBY was lost making that horrible “USS Indianapolis”? Probably not. But, at least one can still see one fly. It does get flown a couple of times a year.

  3. Nice review! I doubt I’ll see the movie, but I’d like to comment on our youth and their education–they need to know the sacrifices of The Greatest Generation. They need to understand the events of the past that shape our world today. As for WWII, high school teachers would do well to assign several books to be read and reported on during the course of those critical 4 years in a young person’s life. These include “At Dawn We Slept–The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor,” “The Battle of Midway,” and “And I Was There–Pearl Harbor and Midway-Breaking the Secrets.” No movie can ever relate the content of these books. No, there are no dramatic graphics or noise–or profanity. But you can’t really grasp those critical years in a 2 (or even 3) hour movie! They need to know the many aspects of that war that resulted in millions of deaths and destruction. And a small correction.. it was Ensign George Gay who was the sole survivor of Torpedo Squadron Eight. I had the privilege of spending some time with him at Oshkosh almost 40 years ago.

  4. This movie is just wrong. My dad, Dusty Kleiss, was one of the dive bomber pilots on the Enterprise. He finally agreed to recall that battle and what led up to it in a published book “Never Call Me a Hero”. The Smithsonian channel just broadcast a new show this Veteran’s day titled “Battle Of Midway: The True Story”. I would recommend either source to learn the truth of that time. This movie is dreck.

    • No need to be bashful; here’s a semi-link to the book on Amazon:

         amazon.com/Never-Call-Hero-Legendary-Dive-Bomber-ebook/dp/B01NCTJ53H

      Paste it into your browser, and your browser should suggest the ‘www’ data (which I left off so that the URL wouldn’t be filtered).

  5. Paul, one thing that did tie the Doolittle Raid and Midway together is the little-known fact that the sudden appearance of B-25s over Japan evoked a huge rush of careless Japanese radio traffic, in the clear, voice and code, encrypted and unencrypted, all over the Home Islands. This had a lot to do with the codebreakers’ ability to crack the Japanese Navy code, since it gave them a bonanza of material to work with, though I doubt the film pointed that out. (Haven’t seen it yet.)

  6. ‘…but I’d like to comment on our youth and their education–they need to know the sacrifices of The Greatest Generation. They need to understand the events of the past that shape our world today. ‘

    You mean the costliest and bloodiest war of all, the Civil War, with more deaths than WW1, WW2, Korea, Vietnam and the Revolutionary war combined, right? I suppose there was no time to judge their ‘greatness’, though, because those generations were mostly all torn apart…

    Germany is a leader in taking in war-torn refugees, alternative energy, Nobel Laureates, and has a highly developed social economy.
    Japan will host the summer Olympics next year with cutting edge technology and clean, fast mass transit that makes New York subways look like entrances to hell.

    Nostalgia affectionados , history buffs and some of us with our aviation lead-in will always look to the past for one of thousands of different interpretations of history, usually patterned after our own viewpoint, and must choose from which one we feel is most accurate. Which interpretation to choose? From what source? Who’s truth? Just how and what to teach these kids, eh? Which of the two movies on Midway to use?

    But today’s youth in my observance wants little to do with any of that. And rightly so. Technology and the social ethos of societies today are moving so fast as to completely occupy a young mind to imperative survival in the present time. Integration of generations, now – to negotiate this present day challenge – I find far more relevant and educational than the examination of past human failings, or elevating one generation over another, as dramatic and tragic as some were.

    If the deep, partisan, angry and intolerant divide that exists today is ever to be changed it will be principally from the youth, with their innate beliefs of greater acceptance, tolerance and a keen eye to always make the future the primary concern, with hardly a glance to the mistakes they and others have made in the past. Learning from the past and gaining greater awareness from it is sometimes called political correctness nowadays, ironically usually by those precisely in the trap of the past. With due respect, maybe let the upcoming generations ‘need to know’ about history what they choose to on their own, and the older ‘Greatest’ generation, which will be gone eventually as it must be, may just learn something new or even ‘great’ from what the youth of today may intuitively already know.

  7. Dunkirk is proof you can still make a successful movie with real airplanes. The CGI you see everywhere just wants to make me puke. I won’t see the new Midway ever, but it did prompt me to break out my saved copy of “Battle of Britain” and enjoy it again