As a World War II history buff, I’m interested in any new movie that comes out about the epic world struggle for power and subsequently for peace. The Pacific war is often less reported on than the European battles with Germany overrunning much of Western Europe and moving East into Russia. If you have ever visited the Pacific War Memorial at Punchbowl Cemetery in Honolulu, Hawaii, you can see etched in the stone walls the timeline of battles between the Japanese and the Allies, specifically the United States military, that encompassed the Pacific Polynesian Islands up to the Aleutian Island chain near Alaska.
Midway is a film long in coming. Director Roland Emmerich (The Patriot) sought his own financial support of this epic-sized film that was written by Wes Tooke after many studios rejected his equally epic-sized budget of $100 million, so he raised his own money making this the largest budget for an independent film. It is theatrically released by Lionsgate with an impressive cast. Though lacking in the battle sequences, the film draws the viewer to understand the extraordinarily complex intelligence feats that were needed to crack the Japanese encrypted communications codes and how decisions had to be made based on hypotheses and bits of information.
The film is focused mainly on the US Navy sailors and aviators in fighting the Pacific war. Opening almost immediately with the grand US intelligence failure of Pearl Harbor that became the “day of infamy,” the film follows the daring feats of pilot Lieutenant Richard “Dick” Best (Ed Skrein) and his immediate superior Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) who tries to curb his rashness. Best’s advice to his Chief Aviation Radioman James Murray (Keean Johnson) explains his boldness in the face of war, “You never know what’s gonna get you, so why worry about it?” Though often rash, Best becomes an endearing figure in the story, one you rout for in the end.
© 2019 Lionsgate Ed Skrein as Lieutenant Richard "Dick" Best and Keean Johnson as Lieutenant James Murray. Photo credit: Reiner Bajo. All rights reserved.
Lieutenant Commander Edwin T. Layton (Patrick Wilson) was the head Intelligence Officer who tried to warn his superiors about the imminence of an attack on Hawaii, but they did not listen. Because of this tragic failure, the President replaced the Commander of the Pacific Fleet with retired Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson). Harrelson takes on Nimitz’ mannerisms and qualities as he brilliantly organizes his entire Navy fleet strategically through the immense Pacific Ocean. He orders an attack on the Marshall Islands where the Japanese have a hold. The Japanese knew they were coming so the loss of American aircraft and pilots was devastating. The naval battles were centered on destroying each other’s Aircraft Carriers, which are the key to naval dominance.
© 2019 Lionsgate. Woody Harrelson as Admiral Chester Nimitz. Photo credit: Reiner Bajo. All rights reserved.
Layton gathers information that the Japanese plan another attack. This time their best guess was Midway Island, a strategic atoll halfway between Asia and North America northeast of the Hawaiian Islands. Their guess was that the Japanese would use this as a stepping stone to attacking the west coast of the US and establish dominance in the Pacific. Layton’s team was questioned and, to Nimitz’ credit, he went on their best estimate as to the date and time the Japanese would strike and shifted his fleet toward Midway. The US went to this battle with three aircraft carriers against the four of the Japanese. This battle was a pretty awesome experience visually. Seeing the US dive bombers try to avoid carrier artillery to get close enough to drop a bomb strategically on the carrier to sink it was masterful. Lieutenant Best led the squadron of bombers that effectively wiped out most of the Japanese fleet including all four carriers.
© 2019 Lionsgate. Patrick Wilson as Lieutenant Commader Edwin Layton. Photo credit: Reiner Bajo. All rights reserved.
During the battle of Midway the Japanese Imperial Navy Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (Jun Kunimura) realized that they have wakened a sleeping giant in the United States, who was once neutral in the war. He said, “The Americans knew we were coming…. We walked into their trap.” It was that battle that defined the entire Pacific war. After that loss, the Japanese did not have the materials and personnel to recover sufficiently to maintain dominance in the seas.
The film shows Layton as getting the praise that was his due, for it was his men who deciphered the Japanese code giving the Americans the upper hand. Although the script lacked any real emotionally-charged dialogue, the visuals were spectacularly telling of the story of loss, struggle, hope, and freedom. What was indeed a complex military strategizing campaign by both the Japanese and the Americans, the battle of Midway Island proved to be a turning point of the war in the Pacific. This film, while not as powerfully impactful as Patton (1970) or Saving Private Ryan (1998), is one that brings us into the experience and the struggle of the brave men and women who fought, worked, and analyzed the American military to victory. Without their bravery, and yes even the recklessness of a Lieutenant Best, history would be a very different story.