Reel War: 'Midway' Revisits the Famous WWII Battle

Just in time for Veterans' Day (November 11) comes a movie about the WWII battle of Midway. In June 1942, six months after Pearl Harbor, this unlikely American victory over Japan's attempt to occupy a seemingly insignificant American outpost on a tiny Pacific atoll was, if not the turning point in a war that would rage for another 3+ years, at a minimum a major blow to Japan's then formidable naval strength.

Halfway between Japan and the west coast of the U.S., the appropriately named Midway, if occupied, would put the Japanese 1200 miles closer Hawaii and, eventually, the U.S. mainland. The occupation itself, however, was only secondary to the true Japanese plans. Their real goal was to lure out and destroy the only three American carriers in the Pacific. Together with the damage done to the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor (where the carriers were, at the time, fortunately at sea), this would seriously cripple our ability to limit further Japanese expansionism, much less defeat it.

This is the second major film made about the battle (the last was in 1976 — a star-heavy production in Sensurround!!). But this new one begins with one hand tied behind its back. It was directed by Rowland Emmerich, he of the resume littered with summer popcorn flicks (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, 1998's Godzilla, and more). Mainstream movie critics were waiting for him with fangs out and keyboards sharpened. Not that the 42% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes is entirely without merit (though as I write this the audience score is 92% favorable — 110 critics, 4,195 audience, do the math). The dialogue sometimes alternates between clunky and gung-ho; most professional critics hate clunky with good reason, and gung-ho because...well, just because. The film might have gone down better critically with a few script tweaks here and there.

Midway begins with an extended prologue covering both the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent Jimmy Doolittle aerial raid on Japan, both of them useful in putting the Midway action into context for young (and not so young) viewers, many of whom are shockingly oblivious to any history that happened more than a text message ago.

When we get to the Midway action itself there's sometimes a lack of clarity in how the battle is portrayed. That may be fine for much of the target audience that just wants to see things blow up. They won't be disappointed. But while the narrative is less adept in laying out the progression of the battle, this is understandable. The incredibly complex Midway engagement was entirely air-to-air, ship-to-air, and air-to ship (the opposing surface fleets were never within sight of each other). It's easier to sort out all the details in print with diagrams than in a drama. You can find several excellent breakdowns of the battle online, particularly on YouTube. I suspect that the abbreviated flow of the action as shown in the film might actually be easier for the average viewer to follow than for someone (like me) with just enough knowledge of how it all went down to be continually wondering where this or that piece of the on-screen puzzle fits into the whole.

Years ago I read about the battle in detail after seeing the 1976 Midway, immersing myself in the facts so thoroughly that I can still rattle off the names of the four Japanese carriers involved (Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu, and Soryu) faster than I can remember what I had for breakfast. But that film took considerable dramatic license with the facts. I worried that this new film might also twist the story into a pretzel for dramatic effect, particularly given Emmerich's past tendencies. Yes, he did direct one other historical film, Anonymous, loosely based on facts and real characters, following the claim by some that Shakespeare didn't actually write plays attached to his name. Highly controversial in some quarters, that film remains one of my second-team favorites, superbly acted and directed, with subtle but effective CGI. It's a 180-degree turn from Emmerich's usual work, and well worth seeing unless you're allergic to historical dramas with little action and no explosions.

But apart from private conversations, of which no records exist, there's little obvious bending of the facts in this new Midway. Yes, there are some technical points one might quibble with; I've seen criticisms to the effect that some of the insignia on the planes were wrong or the wrong color, that they had bomb racks where there should have been none, and that the film only showed the American bombers, not the American fighters that were also engaged. But in a 2+ hour movie you can't show everything. On further research I found the historical accuracy of the film to be remarkable. So much so, in fact, that I wondered if Emmerich might have read the same historical material I did (including a detailed and heavily footnoted entry in Wikipedia).

The ever-present CGI here is often (though not always) convincing, certainly more so on the big screen than in its trailers on a 65-inch TV. The movie is a solid PG-13, which means it has little language, blood, or gore, certainly not enough to give a 13-year old nightmares. The aerial action is also convincing and reasonably realistic; in 1942 the Japanese aircraft were far superior to ours, and their pilots much more experienced.

If you know some of the historical facts going in to the movie you might be less distracted into thinking that parts of the film were laughably Emmerich Goes to Hollywood inventions — the sort of knowledge gap that likely tripped up many critics.


Virtually all of the slow, lumbering, low-flying American torpedo bombers were shot down and did no damage to the Japanese ships; their torpedoes either missed their targets or failed to explode on impact. A rare survivor of the torpedo bomber squadron remained floating in the ocean where he watched the remainder of the battle; he was later rescued by an American seaplane, though that isn't shown. A wave of American multi-engine bombers from the Wake airfield was similarly ineffective against the enemy ships, and one of them, fatally hit, did barely miss crashing into one of the carriers before plunging into the sea. Movie director John Ford was on Midway filming a documentary. He had no inside knowledge that an attack was coming and was injured. A tail gunner for one of the American dive bombers actually did jump into one of the planes sitting on deck and used the stationary plane's gun to shoot back at attacking Japanese aircraft.


An American submarine, present at the battle, did no damage but tied up a Japanese destroyer. As the destroyer later raced to join up with its fleet it was spotted by American Dive bombers running low on fuel while searching for the Japanese carriers. They followed the destroyer. The rest is history. All four of the Japanese carriers involved were destroyed, three of them hit within the first few minutes of that dive bomber raid. The dive bombers actually dove at nearly 90 degrees and dropped their bombs at 1500 feet; one of them is said to have descended at slightly over 90-degrees! One of the three American carriers in the battle (as noted earlier, our entire Pacific carrier fleet at the time), the Yorktown, was lost. Admiral Halsey did miss the battle with a bad neck rash. Two downed American flyers were captured by the Japanese and thrown overboard to drown. Apart from the latter, however, the film treats the Japanese with respect. As shown in the film the two top officers of the Hiryu, the last Japanese carrier sunk, did choose to go down with their ship (this carrier, while still ablaze, was later torpedoed by the Japanese to prevent its capture).


I did like the movie, perhaps helped by seeing it in a Dolby Cinema. As you can see if you read the spoilers above, movies based on history often make stuff up but for the most part Emmerich didn't. Truth really can be stranger than fiction. While watching the film I was distracted by the depiction of a few of the above events, more than a few of which I didn't know were actually real. Later, knowing more about what actually happened, I liked the film even more and look forward to seeing it again. I don't forgive its faults, but it deserves a lot of credit for what it does right.

While I recommend seeing Midway on as big a screen as possible, it's also likely to show up on both disc and streaming by spring — hopefully in 4K HDR with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. It should make for a dynamite experience and sure-fire demo material. The butt-kickers in my local Dolby Cinema had their lives shortened by all the action, and more than a few bullets and anti-aircraft shells tempted me to dive under my seat.