Early reviews of the film Midway were mixed. At least from the information that I was reading, this one was looking like something I might want to miss. Then I saw, on Facebook, a clump of reviews from friends of mine who are combat veterans. These fellas had gone to the theater right when the movie came out and loved the film. I decided I would have to watch it after all.
Making a film such as the 2019 Midway stands on the shoulders of a number of projects that came before it. The connection to Hollywood goes all the way back to the beginning. As depicted* on-screen, movie director John Ford was present on the island where he was actually shot in the arm during the attack. The footage he captured was made into an 18-minute newsreel called The Battle of Midway. We might classify this one as the first of the Midway films. Another newsreel was put together by Ford to honor the sacrifice, during the battle, of Torpedo Squadron 8 from the USS Hornet. America would have to wait until the 1970s, however for its first full-length recounting of this pivotal battle of the war.
Through the 1950s and 60s, as well as into the 70s, the World War II spectacular was a favorite genre. Major efforts featured star-lineups and various innovative efforts to “get it right.” For the 1976 Midway (free to watch on Amazon Prime, at least at the moment), authenticity in the battles scenes was derived in part from reusing actual battle footage and previously-created scenes from movies like Tora!, Tora!, Tora! and Hawai Middouei daikaikusen: Taiheiyo no arashi (Storm Over the Pacific). The theater run used “Sensurround,” featuring an additional low frequency soundtrack powering special speakers to produce a physical rumbling sensation. It was a technology developed for the 1974 film Earthquake, with Midway being the second film to use it. Midway turned out to be popular at the box office and easily made back its investment. Personally, I found the film to be weak in terms of explanation of the battle. On top of that, the special effects pale compared to modern capabilities as well (plus, I don’t have Sensurround speakers in my home). It’s earned its place as a classic war picture, but I’m not sure it can hold its own so many years past its prime.
The next picture that needs to be acknowledged has to be the Michael Bay spectacle Pearl Harbor (2001). One might go on and on about Pearl Harbor as a remake of Tora!, Tora!, Tora! or Pearl Harbor as a failure to remake Tora!, Tora!, Tora!, but that discussion will have to be saved for another time. I would rather draw your attention to the 40 minutes of big budget, modern* representation of Japan’s sinking of the American fleet. For many, this movie-within-a-movie is worth putting up with the rest of the three-hour film at least once. I’m sure many second or third viewings of Pearl Harbor simply skipped ahead to the battle. Bay’s combat sequence sets a new standard for the portrayal of World War II aerial combat. Gone are the days when we’ll be satisfied with watching gun camera footage, helmet-mounted cockpit cameras, and miniature ship models. Much was made about the “hollywoodization” of the imagery, but it is hard to deny that it wasn’t exciting and overall enjoyable to behold.
Pearl Harbor also took the story through the lead-up to the outbreak of war and into the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor bombing. Impossibly, the same film heroes fight in the Battle of Britain, in defense of Pearl Harbor, and the Doolittle Raid. Although poorly executed, the intent seems to be to collect the grand sweep of a world at war into a personal story about a girl. I guess it might have looked good on paper. The point is, Pearl Harbor put its titular event into the greater context and I suppose we should look to Midway to do the same.
In that vein, Midway opens up with a CGI-fest portraying the bombing of Pearl. My initial reaction was feeling cheated at being shown what I’ve already watched before (at no small personal cost). Having let the sequence settle in, though I’ll come to the defense of the writers; starting the movie with Pearl Harbor was their way to create a connection between the core characters (in this case, classmates from the Naval Academy). Following the start of the war, the film then whips you through an air raid in the Marshall Islands, the Doolittle Raid (again), before settling down a little bit for the actual Battle of Midway. Critics complained about the jumpy narrative, but I’d say it worked if you had a familiarity with the historical events, which I have.
Many years ago, I traveled to Honolulu for a family affair and I took with the me the outstanding book Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway. It is a positively outstanding book and the experience was greatly enhanced, for me, by reading it from a Pacific beach. Although that was a while ago, it meant that what I was looking for from Midway was highlight illustrations of what I got from reading Shattered Sword. At this, the movie actually did rather well. Just to cite one standout for-instance, a Midway scene has a Japanese officer explaining why the fire suppression system wasn’t working, a factor that Shattered Sword explained rather extensively. I’m not sure I would have even noticed that detail in the movie had I not been primed for it. Knowing the background, the 15 seconds of screen time was very significant to me.
All said, I’ll agree with my Veteran friends – this was a film worth seeing. Most importantly, it did not throw in a love triangle or personal drama to spice up the story. It mostly focuses on the historical aspects of the battle and, even where it did try to integrate individual drama, it seemed focused on using it to show the human side of war. There were plenty of inaccuracies when it came to the military aspects, but this time around it didn’t bother me. SBDs dogfighting with Zeros? Ehh, whatever. I think the movie did a reasonable job of capturing the feel of this moment in history and I can live with the Hollywood rework.
Were this some other time when I had a different set of projects in front of me, watching Midway would mean getting out my Carriers at War disk and playing some scenarios. I recall from the last time I did it that Carriers at War is no casual investment of time. So for this month, at least, I’ll simply be content to have enjoyed the show.
*At the time of the attack, Ford was an U.S. Naval officer. In the film, he seems to be portrayed as a civilian.
**If 19-years-old can be considered State of the Art.