The other night I got out to see ‘Midway,’ wanting to catch while it was still in theaters. I must say, despite the overuse of CGI and some melodramatic touches, I was very impressed.
The film is of a type that was never very common and is almost non-existent now; a simple and straightforward depiction of historical events. The filmmakers don’t impose any kind of agenda or artificial drama on the story, they just tell what happened more or less the way it did happen and allow that to be enough.
The closest film I can think of would be to Tora, Tora, Tora!, which took basically the same straightforward (and scrupulously fair) approach to the events of Pearl Harbor. A Night to Remember, which took a similar approach to the sinking of the Titanic is another notable example of this particular mini-genre.
Basically, from what I can gather from more historically-literate people, almost everything that happens in this film actually happened. The main characters were all real people. The events and many of the incidents really happened, from aircraft from the Enterprise running smack into the middle of the Pearl Harbor attack to the American bomber trying (unsuccessfully) to ram the Japanese carrier as it goes down in flames.
Even more impressively, the filmmakers allow the characters to speak and act as men and women of their own time and place. There’s no effort to impose a feminist or racially conscious agenda on the events, or to make the characters more ‘modern.’ The Americans have the rough-hewn, devil-may-care, can-do attitude of men who grew up in the Depression. The women are warm and supportive, domestically-focused, but proud of their men. The Japanese have a rigid dignity and class structure bound by intense discipline and sense of honor (though the brutality of the Japanese military is also fairly shown, without any effort to explain the apparent contradiction).
The interesting thing is that, by simply showing these things, the film allows them to be intensely admirable in their own way. When a captured American pilot spits a final defiance in the Japanese face before being executed, it’s a stirring image of American courage. Later, two Japanese officers calmly decide to remain on their ship as its scuttled, after commending the men for their courage and taking responsibility for the defeat on themselves, and it’s a striking and fine instance of distinctly Japanese courage (earlier, Admiral Nagumo, whom we have seen criticized for his very real blunders and whom the film mostly presents as fairly incompetent, has to be convinced to leave his burning flagship under the idea that the remaining men need his leadership. Again, the film makes an effort to be scrupulously fair, not only to the two sides but to individuals on either side).
As for the female characters, there’s a wonderful little vignette where Layton – the codebreaker in charge of determining where the Japanese will strike next, and who tried to warn about Pearl Harbor – comes home late and sets immediately to work at his desk. His wife snatches his glasses to try to make him rest for a while. He pleads for more effort, since he doesn’t want any more men to die because he didn’t work hard enough. She gives him his glasses back and says she’ll make him a sandwich. A sweet, and very human image of domesticity in warfare. Earlier Layton ruefully tells Nimitz that he “plans to spend the rest of his life making it up to her” once the war is over. This matter-of-fact depiction of the different priorities of men and women, where each regards the other with gratitude and affection rather than resentment and hostility, is almost unknown in contemporary fiction. It’s as though the film literally stepped out of the 1940s.
On the subject of raw courage, the film does more than most to show just how insanely dangerous carrier operations of the time were. Again and again we see aircraft malfunction, or crash, or fail to take off or land properly, not due to enemy action but simply because the technology was still in its infancy. Navy fliers, the film makes clear, had to be a little crazy and thoroughly accepting of the possibility of death (one character explains his unflappable courage with an anecdote of how his father survived working on the Empire State Building only to be killed by being hit by a car on his way to church, saying that you simply never know what’s going to get you). We see the futile attacks of the Torpedo Squadrons during the battle, which do absolutely no damage and result in the near-total destruction of both squadrons, but prove unexpectedly crucial by keeping the Japanese pilots busy while the dive bombers set up their runs. And, in what I found to be one of the more striking displays of courage, we see the already-battered bomber squadron, after returning to the Enterprise following their initial run on the Japanese carriers, realizing that they have to get up and go out again to finish the job. Because it’s their job.
We also see the high command, in the form of Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, who is tasked with finding a way to hold off and defeat the superior Japanese navy until American industry gets up to speed. He, and the codebreakers under Layton, are the ones who have to tell the sailors and pilots where to go, and if they get it wrong then more men will die and, as the film makes abundantly clear, the Japanese will be able to threaten Hawaii and the West Coast. The two halves of the military – the commanders and intelligence and the soldiers and sailors – have to have each other’s back if they’re to get anywhere, and the Battle of Midway is an example of them working in harmony to pull off a spectacular and much-needed victory, ultimately turning the tide of the war in the Pacific.
But again, we see both sides. There’s a striking sequence after Pearl Harbor where we cut back and forth between the American brass in Washington and the Japanese command in Tokyo, each discussing what to do next. Admiral Yamamoto is a major figure throughout (showing him listening to FDR’s “Date that will live in infamy” speech was a great touch, as was having him reading Grant’s memoirs). The reasons for the war on either side are presented, but the film shrewdly avoids making an actual judgment on them, focusing more on the events now that the war has begun than on making a historical statement about it.
As I say, my main problem with the film is the overabundance of CGI. While I applaud the film for its minutely accurate depictions of the ships and planes of the time, the whole thing is very, very obviously animated, which takes some of the impact off. They would have been better advised to use a blend of computer and model work (as Emmerich did to great effect in Independence Day) to give a more tactile and solid feel to the film.
There is also a slightly uncomfortable aspect in that the film is largely founded by the Chinese government. Though, as far as I could tell, this didn’t affect the story – which, again, is scrupulously fair and admirable in its depiction of both sides – apart from omitting any mention of Chiang Kai-shek in the scenes set in China, which, as the film covers so much ground, wouldn’t have been necessary anyway.
At times the battle scenes go so far as to feel over the top, almost like a video game. The opening Pearl Harbor sequence, for instance, has a young sailor trying to escape the burning Arizona by climbing across on a rope suspended over flaming waters while Zeros strafe him. Now, for all I know that might have happened, but it feels a little much. Everything being shot from the most dramatic possible angles also lends a sense of unreality and artificiality to the film.
But overall, I was very impressed with the movie, and subsequent consideration has only increased my admiration. Emmerich and his crew have made a true atavism in modern Hollywood; a historical drama that is actually fair and honest about historical events, that presents the men and women of a past age in their own idiom and allows them to speak for themselves rather than being made the mouthpiece for modern platitudes. It is a fitting and honest tribute to the heroism, courage, and skill of the men on both sides who fought one of the most important battles of the twentieth century, and that in itself is a fine thing indeed.