If Midway really was the hot shit it thinks it is, we’d have something to talk about.
But this spare-no-expense production about the most vital naval battle of WWII merely
plasters the latest in digital effects over the same war-time movie tropes
that Hollywood has been pedaling (sic) for decades.
This is the lead from a not-uncommon review of a World War II movie released last weekend, timed no doubt to attract viewers with Veterans Day on their minds.
Midway is a fairly traditional, patriotic war movie, and it comes from Roland Emmerich, whose most popular film by far was 1996’s Independence Day, another fairly traditional movie that peddled war-time movie “tropes” in an imagined life-and-death battle between earthlings and alien invaders.
The last big World War II movie I can recall is 2017’s Dunkirk, which was about troops dreading near-certain death and finally being rescued by civilians’ quiet heroism at Britain’s lowest moment.
In fact, the traditional aspect of Midway feels like a bit of a novelty in the current world of film.
The story here, of course, is the battle of Midway, a four-day naval and air encounter between the United States and Japan that was the pivotal moment of the war in the Pacific.
The story takes its time getting going. It opens in 1937 Tokyo when a US Naval Intelligence officer, Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) begins to detect a potential threat in a conversation with a respected Japanese admiral. Then we see the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, then the retaliatory if symbolic Doolittle Raid of US bombings on Japanese cities and, finally, American and Japanese naval forces planning for a battle that would determine which country’s navy would dominate Pacific Islands from the Philippines to Malaysia to Indonesia and perhaps Australia. And the battle itself.
The movie is studded with famous actors playing the roles of people involved: Woody Harrelson and Dennis Quaid as admirals Nimitz and Halsey, Ed Skrein as fearless pilot Ed Best, Nick Jonas as valiant gunner Bruno Gaido.
Previous war movies did not have one advantage that Midway does: Computer-generated imagery of the Pearl Harbor attack and the Midway battle. These are beautiful in a terrible way and interesting to watch. Midway was conducted across hundreds if not thousands of miles, and in a day before drones or satellites could detect an enemy’s locations or movements. No movie before this has shown with such clarity the squadrons of fighter planes and torpedo-equipped planes bearing down on each other and on ships at sea.
The American service members, as is typical in heroic war movies, come across as decent, hard-working team members in pursuit of a dangerous but essential goal. Some of their dialogue is clunky, true, but honestly, the film sketches out enough broad themes that it has no time for the examination of the interior motivations of individual characters. (If it did, we could binge watch on our television sets over many seasons.)
In fact, some have said the movie’s run time, two hours and 18 minutes, is too long. I’m not sure I see it. Earlier this year, Avengers: Endgame ran just over three hours. Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Irishman, is a half hour longer still.
The China Connection
Midway may be the most expensive independent (i.e., not studio-funded) American film ever. Emmerich’s movies since Independence Day have not been particularly profitable, and a good portion of this film’s reported $100 million budget came from Chinese investors who presumably believe it can find a good market in that country.
The Chinese influence shows, chiefly in references to Japanese cruelty during its occupation of China starting in the late 1930s. In fact, the film’s depiction of Japanese behavior before and during the war is accurate and, if anything, minimized.
One other edit may be a little less so. The original script called for one of the American service members to act “insubordinate” in a minor matter; that scene was removed. China’s leadership does not tolerate insubordination of any kind these days, if it ever did.
Previous War Movies
This is the third Midway movie. The first, The Battle of Midway by legendary filmmaker John Ford, was an 18-minute propaganda piece released in 1942 that still can be found online. After Pearl Harbor, Hollywood joined many other industries to contribute to the war effort.
The second, also titled Midway, was released in 1976 and starred a huge cast of older actors — Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, James Coburn, Glen Ford, etc. It WAS a traditional war movie, and what it lacked in CGI it made up for in a more careful explanation of how US intelligence outmaneuvered its Japanese counterpart and engineered the huge victory. It’s tempting to guess that this release, during the US bicentennial and a year after the withdrawal from Vietnam, was timed to revive American confidence.
Honestly, I cannot recall other gung-ho American war movies. The prominent Vietnam films were Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Born on the Fourth of July. After our involvements in the Middle East, we got American Sniper, Zero Dark Thirty, and The Hurt Locker.
If the US has a history of jingoistic rah-rah movies about war, it sure hasn’t been during the years when I have been paying attention.