With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

The Battle of Midway Movie is Mostly Terrific

The battle of Midway, in the summer of 1942, was the key battle in the war in the Pacific during World War II. Most of the Japanese fleet and its legendary aircraft carriers were destroyed or immobilized in a long-range bombing mission by the U.S. Navy from a group of aircraft carriers, some of them, such as the Yorktown, pretty battered from previous fighting. The victory near Midway island prevented any other Japanese assaults on Pearl Harbor or the American west coast. It was a horrific battle, full of dive bombers, carriers, explosions and a sky full of American and Japanese fighter planes. It was one of the great battles of U.S. history, even world history.

The battle in the Pacific is the subject of a new film, Midway, that opened on Friday. Military buffs will adore it, but the average person will sit through, liking certain parts very much and frowning at others. As far as computerization and special effects, the film is just sensational. The air battles are s vivid, full of bombs, bullets, the fearsome roar of plane engines and fires. You think you are in the copilot’s seat of a plane. I saw the film in one of the new Dolby sound theaters, so the seats vibrated when the fighting on screen began. It is a highly enjoyable experience.

Director Roland Emmerich’s movie Midway has a number of problems, though, and it stands in the shadow of the gripping 1976 Midway that starred Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda. That film had better human stories in it, particularly with Heston and his son, a fighter pilot. It was a taut drama about a battle everybody knew about, and yet it was fresh and invigorating. This new Midway drones along for about three quarters of its length, until it catches fire and ends in a patriotic glow. 

All of the characters in the new Midway needs some depth to them and the actors need to get a better handle on them. Woody Harrelson, as Admiral Chester Nimitz, goes through the film half asleep and the others stars do not do much better. The heroic Dick Best (Ed Skein) is just plain irritating. Other major characters in the film are Dennis Quaid as William “Bull” Halsey, Patrick Wilson as intel chief Ed Layton, Aaron Eckhart as Jimmy Doolittle, and Itsushi Toyokawa as Japanese Admiral Yamamoto.

The movie suffers from a confused structure. This is a movie about the battle of Midway, right? So why does it start with the battle of Pearl Harbor and then move to Jimmy Doolittle’s bombing raid on Tokyo? They are a prelude to MIdway, but not much else. There is a lot of strategic planning by the Americans in the film, but not the Japanese. It is never clear why the Japanese want to take Midway at all. It is also not clear how the U.S. broke the Japanese code, which was the key to victory. 

There is a lot about the leadership and last-minute hospitalization of Bull Halsey, but little on Admiral Raymond Spruance, who replaced him and did a spectacular job (the 1976 movie properly had Spruance as one of its stars). There is a lot of bombing and air battles in the movie, but at times it is difficult t tell who is bombing who. That needs to be clearer.

Until the end of the film, written by Wes Tooke, there is little emotion shown by the main characters on the American side (the film moves back and forth between the Americans and the Japanese, much like Tora! Tora! Tora!).You wonder why these guys are fighting the war anyway. One real loss was in the relationship between the men in the Navy and their women. These relationships are one dimensional and stereotypical. Director Emmerich should have done more with them.

Midway is far better than the recent staid and slow Pearl Harbor that starred Ben Affleck. I just wish that Midway was a sturdier historical movie and explained the battle, and that part of World War II, better.

Despite its drawbacks, Midway is a rip-roaring military saga and a testament to the men who won it. The Americas are seen as brave and heroic in the film, but so are the Japanese. The Japanese are portrayed as men who fought for a cause they believed in just as the Americans did. At the end of the movie the filmmakers pay tribute to ALL the men who fought at Midway.

The very end of the movie is wonderful. You see the real photos of the real heroes of the battle, along with biographies of them. The awards they won and Medals they later wore are incredibly impressive (Doolittle won the Congressional Medal of Honor, as an example). It stirs the patriotic blood in you, not just for America’s victor at Midway, but for the fighting our troops, men and women, have done in all of our history.