*SPOILERS!!! DUH! We’re talking history, here. The story has already been spoiled in tons of books, films, and documentaries.
Film reviews are generally not my thing, but I recently got back from seeing Midway by director Roland Emmerich. So here are my thoughts on it.
Now, Roland Emmerich is mostly known for his silly disaster films like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 (to name a few). It’s usually standard procedure in his films to see a bunch of American monuments gets reduced to their molecular components in spectacular fashion, much in the same way that Michael Bay uses explosions, cliched characters, and frantic editing.
Furthermore, this wasn’t Emmerich’s first historical war film, either.
So it was quite a surprise to see Emmerich’s Midway turn out to be a decent historical war film. From what I understand, this was a passion project for him that’s been on the back burner since the 1990s, and he spent a lot of time actually securing independent funding for the film (largely from China). What was also surprising was the level of historical accuracy that Midway presented! I went in expecting another Hollywood “Based on a True Story”-type garbage history film, but what I got was a very historically faithful representation of the first six months of the Pacific War.
If you’re familiar with the history of the Pacific War, then you’ll recognize quite a few real people depicted in the film. All of the main characters are based on actual historical people, and it’s not just the big Admirals like Nimitz, Halsey, and Spruance. Intelligence officers and code-breakers like Edwin Layton and Joseph Rochefort get their fair share of screen time, emphasizing the importance that intelligence and cryptanalysis played in the war. James Doolittle and his famous raiders have a few scenes, as well. The heroes of the Battle of Midway are also shown such as Richard “Dick” Best, Wade McClusky, George Gay, and even film-maker John Ford who was on Midway Island and wounded during the battle. Also notable are relatively minor historical characters like Bruno Gaido getting significant screen time. True to history, after being shot down, Gaido and Frank O’Flaherty are shown being picked up by the Japanese destroyer Makigumo and eventually executed by being thrown overboard, but not before Gaido asks for a cigarette and defiantly tells the Japanese to, “go fuck themselves.”
The main Japanese players also get time to shine and many of the actors, both American and Japanese, resemble their real-life counterparts. I think all the major actors did a decent job of portraying their real-life counterparts. While I’m not a huge fan of Woody Harrelson, I think he played Adm. Nimitz with a fine degree of subtlety. Dennis Quaid was good as the hard-charging Adm. Halsey, and Patrick Wilson does a nice turn as the intellectual Edwin Layton. I’m not very familiar with Ed Skrein, but I enjoyed his gung-ho portrayal of Dick Best and Luke Evans was decent as Wade McClusky. Lastly, I liked Nick Jonas as Bruno Gaido and Tadanobu Asano as Adm. Tamon Yamaguchi.
Also nice is the fact that the film presents a fairly balanced depiction of both the U.S. and Japanese perspectives. This is to say that the Japanese aren’t depicted as abhorrently evil, but as having their own motivations and feelings. In particular, we get the most screen time with Admirals Isoroku Yamamoto, Chuichi Nagumo, and Tamon Yamaguchi.
That being said, being a Roland Emmerich film, you’re pretty much guaranteed a big spectacle, and Midway certainly delivers on that front. The battle scenes are exciting and well-shot. Even though most of the hardware is CGI, it’s convincing enough to where you get a good sense of the scale of these battles. That being said, some of the CGI is a little iffy, and I doubt it will look very good in 10 years, but it’s still a pleasure to see since most of the ships and planes no longer exist.
In short, from the standpoint of history, this is one of the rare examples of military history in film done right!
While I’m not an expert on the Battle of Midway, I have had the chance to read some excellent history books on the battle. A recent one that stands out in my mind is Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully’s Shattered Sword. This is a highly detailed and heavily researched book that tells the battle from the Japanese perspective and actually argues against some of the common myths of Midway. I can only conjecture that Emmerich or his production team must have been familiar with this work (or the research related to it) because the film corrects some of the long-standing myths concerning the battle such as:
- The Japanese carrier flight decks were full of armed aircraft when the American dive bombers attacked. This is one of the myths perpetrated by Mitsuo Fuchida, but several historians (e.g. Jonathan Parshall and H.P. Willmott) have seriously called into question the authenticity of his accounts. An analysis of Japanese carrier operations shows that there were likely few, if any, aircraft on the flight decks at the time of the attack and most were below in the hangars (Parshall and Tully, 2005, p. 431). The film accurately shows the flight decks mostly empty as the dive bombers make their attack runs.
- Torpedo Squadron 8 was wiped out, but they pulled the Japanese Combat Air Patrol fighters down to the deck and provided an opening for the dive bombers to attack. The torpedo bombers were wiped out a full hour before the dive bombers made their attack. The A6M Zeros would have had plenty of time to regain altitude in time to take on the dive bombers. VT-8’s real contribution was that it disrupted the Japanese counteroffensive (Parshall and Tully, 2005, p. 432). The film merely shows VT-8 getting massacred (along with George Gay’s survival) and the subsequent successful dive-bombing attacks. No mention is made of any particular “sacrifice” or “distraction” being made.
Parshall and Tully (2005) opine that creating a mythos around the battle, “clarifies and simplifies actions that are invariably messy, complex, and almost incomprehensibly violent” (p. 431).
I certainly wasn’t expecting 100% historical accuracy in this film. It is a piece of entertainment, after all. I suspect some dramatic license was taken with numerous events and characters, but to me, that’s acceptable because the film didn’t heavily diverge from the actual history. For example, the Yamato battleship makes an appearance in the film, but it’s accurately depicted as hundreds of miles away from the actual fighting (as it was in real life). This tells me that the filmmakers did not feel the need to have the Yamato magically show up at Midway and start blasting the island; all in an attempt to drastically create some silly fiction just for the sake of more explosions and drama.
I was also surprised at the inclusion of several, relatively simple, scenes that were also true to history. For example, we get a scene where the Japanese officers are preparing for the upcoming Midway operation and it shows them arguing over the outcome of their war game. Yes, the Japanese really did war game out their plan before commencing the operation. In fact, they drew the wrong conclusions and used the war game as a prescriptive for their strategy (wrong move!).
In another accurate scene, U.S. intelligence correctly finds out that the Japanese plan to target Midway Island because the Japanese reported over their channels about the American message that “Midway’s (“Target AF” in the Japanese code) water distillation plant was broken.” The Americans intentionally broadcast that false message and were thus able to deduce that the Japanese code word “AF” referred to Midway.
Yes, I’m sure there are a bunch of technical inaccuracies with regards to ships and aircraft presented in the film, but it’s not like a Dauntless dive bomber magically transformed into a jet fighter as it crashed into the deck during a landing (Ahem…Midway 1976 film!). Although interestingly, while they showed the USS Yorktown being repaired after the Battle of the Coral Sea and hit by bombs during the Battle of Midway, they don’t depict her being sunk by the Japanese submarine I-168. However, on the American side, they do depict the USS Nautilus attempting an unsuccessful attack on a Japanese carrier. Otherwise, the film stayed true to the broad chronology of historical events.
On a more personal note, I found myself really eyeballing the naval uniforms of both the Americans and the Japanese. I’m no expert, but I’ve always found old-school uniforms to be very fascinating, not only in terms of what was worn but how they were made. I can only compare what I see on-screen with modern uniforms, but the difference is noticeable. The uniforms back in the day were definitely sized and cut more loosely and the fabrics were certainly manufactured differently. This is not to say that they weren’t sturdy, in fact, they were probably sturdier than some modern uniforms. In one scene, we even see Admiral Yamaguchi in what appears to be either a bridge coat or a trench coat!
In any case, I just enjoyed looking at the old-school WWII-era uniforms.
In terms of events shown, one of the criticisms of Midway is that it crams the main events from the first six months of the Pacific War into a 138-minute film. For those who don’t know, a lot happened in those first six months as the Japanese steamrolled over virtually all the opposition and were seemingly unstoppable. In the film, we have the Attack on Pearl Harbor, the Marshall-Gilbert Islands Raid, the Doolittle Raid, the Battle of the Coral Sea (briefly), and of course, the Battle of Midway. Interspersed with all of these events are the efforts of Edwin Layton and his intelligence team trying to figure out the next move of the Japanese. Realistically, a filmmaker could make an entire film based on any one of those events. As for my opinion, I do agree that the film crammed a lot of stuff into its run time, and I would’ve been happy with a longer film, or conversely, even having some of the historical events shortened or mentioned in passing, if only for the sake of keeping the narrative moving.
The actual Battle of Midway naturally takes up a significant portion of screen time and the historical timetable is accurately depicted. Bear in mind that it’s not accurate down to the minute, but it gets the major events in the timetable correct. However, the entire film largely focuses on the USS Enterprise and her carrier air group. Much of the efforts of the USS Yorktown and USS Hornet during the battle are given only passing mention. In fact, unless the viewer is paying attention, they might actually forget that there were two other American carriers at the battle.
Another strange thing I noticed was the sequence of events concerning the submarine USS Nautilus during the battle. The film correctly shows her locating the Japanese fleet at around 07:45, but then depicts her as sighting a carrier and firing on it, whereupon her torpedo misses. The destroyer Arashi is ordered to pin down the submarine while the carriers move away. At 09:38, Lindsey’s VT-6 is shown flying over a destroyer (presumably the Arashi) as it’s dropping depth charges. The problem here is the timetable and target. It’s worth noting that the time differences are negligible and different sources often say different things. Obviously, the film isn’t about the USS Nautilus and we can’t expect it to be pinpoint accurate.
- ~08:00 – Nautilus spotted a battleship, a Jintsu-class cruiser, and several destroyers (misidentified as cruisers) (Parshall & Tully, 2005, p. 184).
- ~08:25 – Nautilus probably fired at the battleship Kirishima after which the cruiser Nagara (and likely the destroyer Arashi) pinned her down with depth charge attacks (Parshall & Tully, 2005, p. 185). So the film changed the type of ship that the Nautilus fired at.
- ~09:00 – The Nautilus spotted what they thought was a “Soryu-class carrier” at a distance of about 16,000 yards (Parshall & Tully, 2005, p. 199).
- ~09:33 – The Arashi broke contact and headed back to the fleet (Parshall & Tully, 2005, p. 210-211).
- ~09:55 – The Arashi, while heading back to the fleet, was spotted by McClusky (Parshall & Tully, 2005, p. 217).
Historically, the Nautilus eventually caught up with the burning Japanese carriers and fired on the Kaga around 14:00. Only one of her 4 torpedoes hit, but it was a dud and the floating torpedo air flask was used by Japanese survivors as a life preserver (Parshall & Tully, 2005, p. 302-303). However, the film doesn’t depict this attack. So the actions of the USS Nautilus are out of order and somewhat confusing. Perhaps this was done for reasons of pacing, some scenes may have been deleted, or the editing process could have put the scenes in the wrong order. But remember that the film is largely told from the perspective of the Enterprise. So…yeah.
I was also disappointed that we don’t see any F4F Wildcats dogfighting with Zeros and there’s no mention of John Thach and his famous “Thach Weave” maneuver. Instead, we get lots of SBD Dauntless dive bombers and the occasional dogfight between them and the Zero (which did happen, but the film gives no indication of U.S. carriers having any fighter squadrons aboard). I kept wondering, “where the hell are the U.S. fighter planes?”
One of the common criticisms of this film is that the characters can seem a little flat and underdeveloped. This is also true. Roland Emmerich’s films are not noted for their strong character development and some of them can come off as forced. There are a lot of historical characters in this film and it can be kind of hard to keep some of them straight unless you’re really familiar with the history of the Pacific Theater. Most of us are familiar with the great admirals like “Bull” Halsey or Chester Nimitz, but I doubt names like Richard Best and Wade McClusky ring many bells unless you’re a fan of naval aviation history. I bet most viewers thought Bruno Gaido was a fictional character. Nope! He was a real person, and his death was accurately depicted. I would opine that “reasonably” faithful depictions of historical figures seem rather flat because the film is focused on the action and the events. It has to condense a lot of stuff into a small amount of time and characterization tends to suffer because of that. Furthermore, real people don’t always have clean-cut character arcs and development like in traditional storytelling.
Overall, is this film an Oscar-worthy piece? No. (The Academy Awards are a joke anyway!) I wasn’t drastically moved by the film and it didn’t really do anything revolutionary in regard to the storytelling and characters. The Battle of Midway, being a well-known event, is not obscure or eye-opening. If you paid attention in history class, then you already know the outcome. Spoilers: THE AMERICANS WIN! This film mostly appeals to people who study the Pacific War, and it really does cram a lot of history into a 2+ hour run time. There’s a lot going on in the film and a lot of characters. The characterization is indeed a bit flat, but this isn’t a biographical film. Sure there are a number of historical inaccuracies, but in my opinion, they’re mostly minor and forgivable. The film gets the big events in proper order and does them well. The action scenes are well-shot and gripping. The ending of the film is a good tribute to the men on both sides who fought in this epic battle. If you’re a fan of war movies and of WWII history, then you’ll definitely enjoy this film.
Rating: 4 out of 5 (Very good/worth your time.)
We Need More Naval History Films!
On a final note, this film is an excellent example of using CGI to faithfully recreate ships and aircraft that don’t exist anymore. While the CGI is a bit sketchy in some places and we know they’re just a bunch of pixels, the period-accurate re-creation of them is pure eye candy for any Pacific War naval history buff (like myself). I could look at so many of the ships or planes and accurately ID them because of the attention to detail. Again, this is in contrast to other films (Ahem…Pearl Harbor) that use obvious modern stand-ins and get tons of crap wrong, or even the 1976 film Midway that strangely uses a jumble of stock footage (most of it from late war).
I feel that in the past few decades, there’s been a slew of WWII films (kind of starting with Saving Private Ryan), but with an over-emphasis on the European Theater. Maybe that’s because it’s easier for audiences to get behind the Allies’ fight against Hitler and the Nazis. I mean, God forbid we eschew political correctness and show the Japanese as a historical enemy because we’re all friends with the Japanese today! Or it could also be that it’s easier to depict infantry combat and audiences can more closely relate to the average ground-pounder. Sure, we had the HBO miniseries The Pacific as a sort of counterpart to Band of Brothers, but that was largely focused on the Marines and their island-hopping campaigns.
With Midway, it appears that we now have the digital capabilities to recreate WWII-era naval ships and battles. Yes, there’s the Battle of the Atlantic, the U-boats, the Bismarck, the Gneisenau, the Scharnhorst, etc. However, let’s not forget that the Pacific Theater was very much a naval war and there were numerous epic naval battles. You could easily do several films based on the naval battles around Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands campaigns. Then of course there’s the Philippine Sea and the massive Battle of Leyte Gulf, just to name a couple of others. I would love to see some of those naval battles faithfully recreated on the big screen in the same way that Emmerich did with Midway. Give us lots of accurate CGI ships, subs, and aircraft, plus a handful of real historical figures, and let the actual history tell the drama!
A discussion of historical accuracy in films is for another post. While there have been a number of very historically accurate films over the years, they are overshadowed by the majority which favors a twisted interpretation of history. Alas, the actual drama of history is a totally foreign concept in Hollywood that overwhelmingly favors narmy cliches and melodrama. But once in a great while, we have a decent depiction of history on film.
Parshall, J.B. & Tully, A.P. (2005). Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway. Dulles, VA: Potomac Books Inc.