Midway tells the incredible true story of one of the key turning points of the war in the Pacific during World War II, in which the United States Navy's air arm sank four Japanese aircraft carriers in a single day (June 4, 1942), just six months after Pearl Harbor, and forever thwarted Japan's ambitions for territorial expansion.
The real history of the battle almost defies belief.
On one level, it's a story of a military intelligence coup and how the United States managed to break and interpret Japan's codes as a prelude to the attack on Midway Island, an atoll in the Pacific within reach of Hawaii.
On another level, it's a story of sheer dumb luck as American torpedo bombers and dive bombers locate the Imperial Japanese Navy and attack the massive fleet in an uncoordinated assault while low on fuel.
Let me add here, in an historical aside, that the American torpedo bombers were antiquated TBD Devastators, which were slow, ungainly and obsolete before the war even began. The Devastators attacked the IJN carriers at wave-top level and drew the attention of the Japanese fighter coverage. It was suicidal. At least 34 of the 41 torpedo bombers were lost, and not a single torpedo (scandalously defective weapons early in the war, at best) scored a hit. Just a handful of American airmen survived the attack.
But with the Japanese air cover drawn low, the American dive bombers appeared unmolested at just the right moment minutes later, from two different directions and from 10,000 feet, to fatally hurt the IJN carriers. Thus, the sacrificial torpedo bombers served a valiant, if unplanned, purpose.
The reason the damage was so severe is that the Japanese were in a quandary, trying to decide whether to arm their planes with bombs for a second attack on Midway Island, or with torpedoes to attack the now revealed American carriers. Consequently, when the American dive bombers arrived, the Japanese were rearming and refueling their aircraft on the fight decks and hangers as the bombs were falling. To say the blow was fatal seems somehow inadequate. Several thousand human beings – even if they were the enemy – perished on shipboard infernos. The Japanese could never replace the experienced seamen and aviators they lost that day.
Anyway, back to the movie.
The flick depicts two real life Midway heroes, Lt. Cmdr. Wade McCluskey (portrayed by Luke Evans) of (scout-dive bomber group) VS-6, and Lt. Dick Best (Ed Skrein) of VB-6. Both actors give creditable performances with sparse, understated scripts. They tell the story, and that's all they need to do, because the story is more than enough.
From what I could see, the movie was pretty much historically accurate, which delighted me. The only thing I had to compare it to was the original Midway (1976), which featured an all-star cameo cast of Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Hal Holbrook, James Coburn, Glenn Ford and Robert Mitchum. That movie was ruined by an unnecessary and unrealistic romantic subplot, not to mention stock World War II combat footage of aircraft that weren't even present at Midway. Oh, my.
I had just one minor complaint about the current Midway. Instead of stock footage depicting combat, the movie uses computer generated imagery (CGI), which is spectacular. It means that aircraft like the SBD-3 Douglas Dauntless dive bomber are accurately portrayed right down to its rivets. You can't ask for more than that, especially since any of those surviving vintage planes are now found in museums.
But CGI also lets a director like Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) take some license. There are scenes of aircraft flying below tree-lined boulevards in Hawaii during the attack sequence on Pearl Harbor, which I'm pretty sure didn't happen. There are CGI explosions galore and more tracer bullets and anti-aircraft bursts in the sky than seems possible. But if the overkill (pun might be intended) is meant to seem harrowing, well, then, point taken.
Having said that, combat blood and gore are minimal – nothing like the realism we saw in Saving Private Ryan.
On a side note, the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes gave the current Midway a critics' score of 42 percent, which is horrible. But the audience score is 92 percent from a field of more than 6,500 viewers. I'm guessing the viewers were probably all history geeks. Geeks know what they know.
The Battle of Midway is remarkable history. If you happen to be a history nerd, then you might want to read "Shattered Sword – The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway" by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully (2007). It's very readable and it just might be the definitive work on the battle.
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I might be on a movie review rampage in the next few weeks. I've already done a review of Judy, about the final months of the life of actress Judy Garland. I'm now eager to see Ford v Ferrari, which has already commanded a feature story in the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated, and perhaps soon after that, I want to see Tom Hanks' turn as Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
It's not the holiday season for nothing.