One Thing after Another does not review movies although it has at times participated in historical disputes about films and other visual media (including commercials). Today, the blog breaks new ground by presenting something that resembles a review. Only a couple of days ago, against his better judgment, Professor Hugh Dubrulle was convinced by Professor Phil Pajakowski to attend a showing of Midway. Having expended the time and effort to see the film, Professor Dubrulle thought he ought to parlay his hard-won experience into a review that might both educate and entertain.
It’s hard to make an analogy between Midway and other war films because nothing quite fits. Film reviewers are, surprisingly, not much help. They have described Midway as “traditional” and “retro,” but these are vague phrases. Others, with a greater appearance of precision, have claimed that the film looks like a video game, World War II propaganda with 2019 CGI, or Pearl Harbor II. All these claims, however, seem like glib shorthand generated by necessarily prolific writers seeking to meet yet another deadline. Have these reviewers actually watched World War II propaganda?
To use a label produced by Jeanine Basinger in The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre (2003), Midway looks most like an “epic re-creation of historical events.” Basinger uses this phrase to describe “large-scale epic combat films” that devote “attention to minute detail,” document real events as well as the doings of real people, and make the war “a legendary story—fully distanced and mythic—suitable to be one of our national stories for all time.” Such films include The Longest Day (1962), Battle of the Bulge (1965), Battle of Britain (1969), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), and, of course, the original Midway (1976).[i] Yet the fit is not exact. As we shall see, there is something about our Midway that is not quite so serious and didactic as these docudramas.
Moreover, in epic re-creation films, the point of view is usually omniscient. Midway, on the other hand, focuses on a handful of characters while aiming for omniscience at the same time. It’s not hard to see why. Audiences need to feel connected to a small number of individual characters, but the omniscience also allows theater-goers to make sense of the grand narrative. Unfortunately, the effect is disorienting and asks more of the movie than it can deliver. Most of the time, Dick Best (played by Ed Skrein) and Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) are at the center of the action, and that makes sense. Through Best, a dive bomber pilot, we witness the sharp end of war, while Layton, an intelligence officer, allows us to see the big picture (although it does feel odd to survey the action from such divergent points of view). These two characters, however, cannot survey everything, so from time to time, the audience ends up in a wild variety of places that are related to the main protagonists in the most tangential way (e.g. China, where Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle tramps about after crashing his plane there). Traveling across the length and breadth of the Pacific to cover a series of events between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway takes a great deal of time which means that the grand narrative is a bit sketchy and a little disjointed. After Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington famously observed:
The history of a battle is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost, but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.
And that seems to be a difficult problem for Midway to resolve, especially since the film is not concerned with merely one battle.
As the foregoing suggests, the screenplay is the great weakness of this film. Because Midway spends so much time jumping from place to place, there is not much time for character development—although the film doesn’t seem to be terribly interested in doing much along those lines anyway. Ed Skrein plays the swaggering, gung-ho fly-boy who is always engaged in harum-scarum antics. The only way in which he doesn’t conform to type is that he is not a fighter pilot—instead, he flies dive-bombers. The film seeks to present him as a cocky but highly capable pilot—a sort of prototype for the guys who became astronauts in The Right Stuff. Partly because of the screenplay and partly because of his acting, Skrein comes off as an unlikable, immature jerk. And his accent is atrocious. Skrein is originally from London, so somebody had to teach him how to speak American English. The result sounds like a strange cross between a Mississippi drawl, New York diction, and somebody being strangled. As for Patrick Wilson’s character, one of the few things we learn about him is that he works too much. How do we know? Because people keep telling him that he works too much. Especially his wife. Every character he knows makes the comment so frequently that I kept thinking it was some kind of foreshadowing. Would he have a heart attack? Would his wife leave him? This character’s only other outstanding trait is his regret that he did not assert his opinion more forcefully with his superiors before the Pearl Harbor attack; had he done so, perhaps the Americans would have been better prepared to thwart the Japanese assault. That’s about it, aside from his propensity to utter portentous statements—or banal statements that sound portentous.
Everybody in this film is a tough guy. You have cocky young tough guys (Skrein). You have intellectual tough guys (Wilson). You have crusty old tough guys (Dennis Quaid playing Bull Halsey). You have wise old tough guys (Woody Harrelson who seems a strange pick to play Chester Nimitz). You have cocky young New York tough guys (Nick Jonas as Burno Gaido). And so on and so forth. Nobody, of course, is as tough as the Japanese (but more about that anon). Many of these tough guys do not get on with one another. Skrein’s character has a beef with Wade McClusky, the air group commander on his carrier (Luke Evans), and Eugene Lindsey, the leader of a torpedo bomber squadron (Darren Criss). This beef provides opportunities for much posturing, but fortunately for the United States, once the fighting gets serious, these tough guys all pull together to win the battle. No doubt all of these guys were tough, and the navy was a masculine world during this period, but the problem is that these characters all speak with the same voice.
Two characters don’t quite fit this general pattern, and they play only minor roles: the master codebreaker, Joseph Rochefort (Brennan Brown), and a young replacement pilot in Best’s squadron, Edwin Kroeger (James Hicks). Since he is a genius, Rochefort is, of course, eccentric, which means he is allowed to pad around in a bathrobe and slippers in his office while sneaking nips of whiskey from a flask concealed in a file cabinet. He also wears a perpetually fearful expression and an unhealthy, sweaty pallor. His look reminded me a little of Buster Keaton. As for Kroeger, the audience knows he is doomed the second he shows his sad baby face. At the end of a briefing, Kroeger approaches Best and stammers that he’s lost his confidence. Best initially tells Kroeger to suck it up but thinks the better of it and takes on Kroeger as a wingman in an attempt to help him. No matter; in the next scene, Kroeger crashes on takeoff, and the carrier runs over his plane. There is no mercy for the weak. Kroeger’s sole purpose in the movie consists of giving Best a brief pause to reflect on his leadership (and show his soft side to his wife) before he can resume his role as tough guy.
The portrayal of the Japanese is also clichéd. They are, of course, tough, but in a much more reserved way. A number of film critics have described the treatment of the Japanese in this film as respectful and even-handed, but one can’t help feel that there are some old stereotypes at work that insist on drawing them as a formal and restrained people. It’s hard to complain about these stereotypes when no disrespect is intended and the Americans are so thoroughly stereotyped themselves. Whatever the case, Midway depicts them as honorable and worthy adversaries which makes the American feat of sinking four Japanese carriers at Midway appear all the more impressive. Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (played by Etsushi Toyokawa) conforms to traditional portrayals of this leader. He is even-tempered and sagelike—a kind of Buddha in admiral’s clothes. Of course, had Yamamoto been as wise as the tradition portrays him, his Midway campaign might not have ended in fiasco. But Yamamoto is wise, so we get to hear him tell his wife the famous line with which his name is indelible associated—“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve”—even though there is no evidence that Yamamoto ever said such a thing in his life. I must admit that it was hard to dislike the Japanese; after all the posturing on the American side, the Japanese affect seemed like a breath of fresh air. And the Japanese are funny (if only inadvertently). Occasionally, they give the Americans backhanded compliments during the action scenes: “The Americans are brave; lucky for us their planes are obsolete.” Such comments strangely reminded me of the kind of backhanded compliments I make about opposing teams during my son’s high school soccer games: “They’re creating a lot of chances; lucky for us they don’t know how to finish.” And the Japanese method of holding oneself to account, though also conforming to an old stereotype, felt refreshing—especially in this day and age when CEOs and politicians take “full responsibility” for some terrible mistake by traipsing off with a colossal severance package or, better yet, a cushy position somewhere else. Towards the end of the film, as the Hiryu (the fourth Japanese carrier destroyed by the Americans) is consumed by flames, Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi (Tadanobu Asano) informs his officers that the defeat was not the fault of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s sailors. Instead, the sailors had been failed by their leaders. As one of those leaders, Yamaguchi insists on going down with the ship. Now that’s taking “full responsibility.”
And yet the portrayal of the Japanese as worthy adversaries goes a bit far when a dedication appears at the end of the film that pays tribute to the American and Japanese sailors who fought at Midway. This exercise in broadmindedness seems a bit pious for a cartoonish film like Midway. More important, this dedication appears to forget that the Japanese served an extremely violent, unpleasant, and militaristic regime. For sure, the United States was also an imperial power that sought to uphold the colonial status quota in Asia. Yet anybody familiar with the character of Japanese imperialism during World War II ought to feel a bit queasy about paying tribute to the Imperial Japanese Navy.
There are other annoyances in this film. One of my pet peeves is when historical films have characters say things for the sake of providing context to the audience. This type of thing occurs throughout Midway. At one point (could it have been after the Battle of Coral Sea?), I think Bull Halsey turns to one of his officers and says, “One of our carrier’s been sunk. Now we only have three in the Pacific!” This exclamation is purely for the audience’s benefit; all of Halsey’s officers would have known how many American carriers were arrayed against the Japanese. In another case, Layton takes Nimitz on a tour of the codebreakers’ offices to explain how the intelligence system works. Again, this scene is for the audience’s benefit; it’s hard to imagine that Nimitz didn’t understand how intelligence was collected. Such scenes are often necessary for historical films, but in Midway, they seem a bit unsubtle and ham-fisted.
Finally, there are all the little things that rivet-counters will object to. The dive time of the SBD Dauntless takes far too long in the film; the Dauntless is portrayed as far too maneuverable; the rear gunners on these Dauntlesses shoot down far too many Zeroes; the Dauntlesses dive too close together throughout their runs; the TBD Devastator could not carry a torpedo and bombs at the same time; there was no way that Best or anybody could have made a Dauntless use a hammerhead stall to evade Japanese fighter planes; and so on and so forth.
Yes, there is much in Midway that is exasperating. But it is hard to hate the film. It is certainly not as bad as Pearl Harbor (2001). I remember being so bored during Pearl Harbor that when the USS Arizona finally blew up after what seemed like an hour and forty minutes into the film, I just didn’t care anymore. Midway is shorter and punchier. It isn’t saddled with a dreadfully tedious love triangle the way Pearl Harbor was. The fact that it is a bit cartoonish seems to indicate that it doesn’t take itself quite as seriously as Pearl Harbor either. And that somehow makes it much less insulting. It is a mediocre action-adventure film masquerading as an ““epic re-creation of historical events.” I get the feeling that it almost winks from time to time that the history lesson is a cover for some good fun.
Maybe the action scenes are not perfect. They do remind me a bit of video games. They also resemble the attacks on the Death Star in Star Wars. Did George Lucas draw inspiration from old World War II movies with aerial combat? Do World War II films nowadays draw inspiration from Star Wars? It seems we have completed a loop. Whatever the case, how often do you see SBD Dauntless dive bombers on the big screen attacking a big Japanese flattop? That is a novel experience indeed.
Strictly speaking, the dive-bombing scenes are inaccurate. Yet they still represent an important truth in dramatized fashion. One clearly senses the thrill-terror of flying a clattering plane in a near-vertical dive while attempting to guide a bomb onto the deck of an enemy aircraft carrier that is throwing up a rich but deadly black storm of anti-aircraft fire. A sensitive, imaginative, and empathetic viewer who sees through all the pyrotechnics of Midway may just catch a glimpse of the serious question that occurs to Rear Admiral George Tarrant (Frederic March) at the end of the The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954):
Where do we get such men? They leave this ship and they do their job. Then they must find this speck lost somewhere in the sea. When they find it they have to land on its pitching deck. Where do we get such men?
Although smaller-scaled than Midway, The Bridges at Toko-Ri (which takes place on an aircraft carrier during the Korean War) is a far superior film. An adult screenplay and better acting both contribute to that superiority. Together, they produce the haunting and dark spirit that characterize the movie. I can think of no better way to describe it than by referring to the way John Keegan depicted a passage from Michael Howard’s The Franco-Prussian War: “neo-Classical, severe in mood, somber in tone, his subjects frozen in the attitudes of tragedy in which fate, deaf to appeals of compassion, has consigned them.”[ii] The problem with Midway is that an action film masquerading as an “epic re-creation of historical events” cannot clearly render the darkness of the Pacific war. That darkness is apparently not suited for “a legendary story—fully distanced and mythic—suitable to be one of our national stories for all time.”
[i] Jeanine Basinger, The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003), 170-171.
[ii] John Keegan, The Face of Battle (New York: The Viking Press, 1976), 44.