When I was a kid I went with my friends to the Hanover Mall Cinema to see a movie called “Midway,” about the pivotal battle that changed the tide of the war in the Pacific. The battle scenes and practical effects were state of the art at the time. Plus it was presented in “SenSurround,” a ridiculous, short-lived gimmick in which subwoofers the size of a couple of sofas were set up in the front of the theater and were supposed to vibrate all the explosions through the floor, up your ass and into your body cavity to make the experience more realistic. Amazing that never caught on.
So, for Veteran’s Day weekend, I took the WWII buff and war movie fan I was lucky enough to marry to see the new, Roland Emmerich version of “Midway,” In the very same theater, no less. (I have nothing but pity for you poor, timid cucks who got dragged to “Last Christmas,” but it’s your own fault.) Because time is a flat circle. But more so because some stories are so epic they deserve to be told, over and over again, from one generation to the next. And the Battle of Midway is just such a story.
In short, the Japanese considered the islands of Midway and the airfields that were there a key to not only controlling the Pacific, but as perfect staging area for launching their attacks on the West Coast of the US. This was just a few months after Pearl Harbor had crippled the US Navy's battleship fleet, and the war - like your last game of "Battleship," was going to be decided by aircraft carriers. So they sent a group of four carriers: the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu to wipe out the American base on Midway. What the Japanese, under the command of Admiral Yamamoto, didn't know, is that a group of Navy musicians had been reassigned to code breaking and deciphered their plans. The carriers Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown (which had been damaged at Coral Sea and needed three months of dry dock for repairs, but the navy engineers had it back and battle ready in just a matter of days), were waiting for them. SPOILER: The Americans win.
Based on the Rotten Tomatoes scores, the new movie is yet another battleground in the Culture War we’re in the middle of. As I’m writing this, it’s sitting at 40% among the critics, and 92% on the audience score. The negative reviews I’ve read seem to complain that it’s an old school, throwback do the kind of movies that used to Starr Duke Wayne or Henry Fonda and a cast of thousands. Which somehow is a bad thing. And hilarious, given that Hollywood pleasures itself like a bunch of Bonobo monkeys anytime someone does a throwback to say, all the musicals or silent films or some such crap. But make a film about morally unambiguous American heroes making sacrifices to save the world, and it’s hokey bullshit or something. Needless to say, I am with the audience on this one.
Simply put, “Midway” is fantastic. A complex story of valor, ingenuity and brilliant military tactics told in a cohesive, compelling narrative. The battle sequences include some of the best CGI Hollywood has ever produced. Edited in a way that give you the epic scale of the military operations from Pearl Harbor to the Doolittle Raider’s bombing of Tokyo to the title battle, while allowing you to follow the individual heroics of the real life airmen, sailors and commanders who fought them. And if the geometry and physics of the chaos of naval air combat have ever been presented this well before, I definitely missed it.
Apart from telling the story well, as far as I know from reading and videos I've watched over the years, “Midway” is totally historically accurate. Right down to dozens of near misses from the US pilots that nearly sank the Japanese carriers early in the battle. Wave after wave of attacks from the Americans failed to put a dent in the Imperial Navy, owing to the under-trained, inexperience of the Midway air base pilots and their outdated, inferior planes. But they never stopped coming, harassing the enemy and preventing them from launching counter strikes at the US carriers. They bought time for their side to win the battle. And paid with their lives.
The performances are pitch perfect across the board, from Ed Skrein playing the most aptly named man in human history, squadron leader Dick Best, to Luke Evans playing Wade McClusky, for whom a medal for pilots is now named, to Nick Jonas and Darren Criss from "Glee," of all people. And Woody Harrelson continues the longest active streak of consecutive really good performances in Hollywood, playing Admiral Chester Nimitz, the commander of US forces in the Pacific. Every at bat he gets, Harrelson ropes a warning track double to the power alley, just making it look easy. "Midway" is no exception.
The thing is, this is not a film that's not necessarily trying to play power chord guitar solos on your heartstrings. This is Roland Emmerich, for crying out loud, who's destroyed the Earth so much ("ID4," "Day After Tomorrow," "2012") it's like he's got a grudge against the planet. And yet I found myself really emotionally affected by it. Actually having to wipe a manly, Spartacus-like tear or two as the credits rolled. I admit I'm probably not the most neutral observer for a movie like this. Truth be told, my dad served on a carrier, in the Atlantic theater, aboard the USS Solomons. He was a Machinist's 1st Mate, one of those guys with the paddles who guide the planes at takeoff and landing. And my mom once told me that until the day he died (all too young), he never got over the deaths of the pilots who didn't make it. So yeah, watching a portrayal of the brave sacrifices and heroic valor of real men who did nothing less 77 years ago than save the world from tyranny just got to me.
And I'm not alone, I guess. The public has spoken with their wallets, as "Midway" made the most box office in the country this weekend, despite being on hundreds of fewer screens than the Christmas movie or "Doctor Sleep." I just know that "Midway" gets a 100% rating on Thornton Tomatoes. Happy Veteran's Day to all who've served, especially those who fought in World War II. We can never repay you, but we should all know your stories. And be grateful such people like you lived.