This was a movie that I really wish I’d gotten to for the Veteran’s Day Holiday. It is a no frills salute to the Navy forces that sustained the fight in the Pacific in the months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It hews closely to the timeline of events and the key players in the Battle of Midway which happened just six months after the surprise attack and largely changed the fortunes of war for the American side. A combination of hard work, rage and intuitive luck resulted in a complete reversal of the naval status of the two nations in a very short time.
Director Roland Emmerich is known for the disaster films he has made. Whatever his dramatic limitations are, he knows how to blow things up and show destruction on a massive scale. With this subject he has found an effective outlet for his skillset. There is a reenactment of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle raid on Tokyo and subsequent Japanese attacks on China and in the Corral Sea. All of this is a lead up to the title battle which takes up the last part of the film.
There is a narrative that focuses on the life of Navy flyer Dick Best, a real hero from the period. The fact that ther is a personal story however does not make this like the other war films you have seen over the years. We get just enough of his homelife and personal doubts to see that he is a human being in this large scale picture of the war. Similarly, there is a slight story about the intelligence officer who had warned about potential dangers at Pearl Harbor before the attack, and his subsequent work with code breakers to try and determine where the next big event would be. Actor Ed Skrein plays Best as a no nonsense family man who also is fearless enough to intimidate those he is in command of. Patrick Wilson plays the quiet intelligence guy who’s guilt over the Pearl Harbor mess forces him to challenge establishment thinking about the war.
There are not quite as many personal touches for the Japanese commanders but they are presented in honest ways, suggesting their commitment and honor in what is a truly tragic us of resources. This is not a propaganda film, it is an historical document of the events and it tries to steer clear of making one side or the other more virtuous, it simply tries to tell us what happened. As a history lesson it is pretty effective. It is not hard for us to follow events and see how the strategy for Midway was evolved by both sides. Of course the thing that makes it cinematic is the CGI spectacle that we see as the conflict plays out. It is clear that this is a CGI heavy film, the work is competent but it is at times noticeable. The scale of destruction that happens probably could not be presented any other way these days in a budget that is manageable. Unlike “Saving Private Ryan”, “Midway presents the destruction without all the visceral horror that modern effects and make up are capable of. There are a few scenes where fire injuries are shown but there are no closeups on the wounded and the dead which are meant to turn our stomachs. This is a film that largely could have been made in the 1950s for it’s sensibilities.
Woody Harrelson, Aaron Eckhart, and Dennis Quaid play major historical figures, but most of their work is really background, with only a little bit of drama involved. Once again, we are presented with a reason to be eternally grateful to the “Greatest Generation”. As far as I’m concerned that is justification enough to see the movie. The history lesson is also solid and it makes this a film that could be appropriately shown as part of a school curriculum. The drama is soft pedaled but the hard fought war and the losses that it entailed are worth a visit.