History Nerd's Review: Midway (2019)


"I’m not going to sugarcoat it, boys. Nobody thinks we can go toe-to-toe with the Japanese. Not in a fair fight. Today, we’re going to be big underdogs. Me? I think the men in this room can fly with anyone. Maybe that’s because I’m a cocky son of a bitch. But it’s also because I’ve seen what you can do. You’re ready for this."

Some of the best, most exciting, most dramatic stories in all of human history are the ones that really happened. I've been a history nerd all my life, and that sometimes makes it hard to watch movies or TV series that set out to portray historical events. So many historical dramas, even very entertaining ones, fall short of accuracy in ways that I just can't overlook. To give just one example, while Patton is generally true to life, my willing suspension of disbelief can't make it through the battle sequences because all the vehicles are wrong.

Every so often, though, a film or series will come along where the writers and producers did their homework and aced the history exam. I will be reviewing some of them in this series of posts. They all rate four out of four history books on the Doux Reviews scale for artistic and entertainment value; I will be grading them here only on historical accuracy.

First up will be the 2019 film Midway, directed by Roland Emmerich, which stars Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Mandy Moore, Luke Kleintank, Dennis Quaid, and Nick Jonas. Midway tells the story of the first six months of the Pacific war, from Pearl Harbor through the Doolittle Raid to Midway. On June 4, 1942, thanks to the skill of American pilots and the intelligence provided by American codebreakers, the Japanese lost their four biggest aircraft carriers--three of them fatally damaged in just ten minutes!--and much of their trained carrier crew. The war wasn't over for another four years, but after Midway, the final result was inevitable.

Yes, that really happened: Historians' understanding of the Midway battle, particularly the details of how the Japanese task force operated, was for a long time inaccurate due to reliance on the memoirs of Fuchida Mitsuo. Fuchida led the attack on Pearl Harbor, and was present (though not flying) at Midway. While he certainly was a witness to these events, his written accounts of them were, shall we say, a bit imaginative and somewhat biased in his favor, often at the expense of some of his comrades who did not survive the war.

Japanese historians had been aware of Fuchida's inaccuracies since the early 1970s, but his account was uncritically accepted by Western historians until just a few years ago. The 2005 publication of Shattered Sword: the Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, corrected the record using primary sources such as Japanese ship logs and war diaries. Shattered Sword also happens to be one of the best-written history books I've ever read.

It's obvious that screenwriter Wes Tooke had his copy of Shattered Sword right next to the keyboard as he wrote the script, because just about every event you see on the screen is true to life, even the ones that some film critics scoffed at as unrealistic. Yes, AMM3 Bruno Gaido really did shoot down a Japanese bomber using the rear guns of a parked aircraft. Yes, Cmdr. Joseph Rochefort, the chief codebreaker, really was as eccentric and brilliant as they make him out to be. Yes, intelligence officer Lt. Cmdr. Edwin Layton's prediction of where and when the Japanese fleet would be detected was accurate to within five minutes, five degrees, and five miles. Yes, dive bomber pilot Lt. Richard Best (with a little help from his friends) really did sink two aircraft carriers in a single day.

Points off for: overenthusiastic visual effects. The Douglas SBD "Dauntless" dive bombers are shown releasing their bombs at a much lower altitude than they did in real life. Japanese aircraft didn't make low level strafing runs on the sinking battleships at Pearl Harbor, and the Imperial Japanese Navy could only dream of being able to put up antiaircraft fire as intense and visually exciting as what you see on the screen.

There is no evidence that Japanese Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku actually said "We have awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve," a quote commonly attributed to him which is repeated in this film. It's "accurate," however, in the sense that it reflects his apprehensions about going to war with the United States.

Extra credit for: In the Marshalls-Gilberts raid sequence, the Dauntlesses are shown with the correct weapons loadout for the first couple months of the war: small 100-pound bombs on their wings and a 1,000-pounder under the fuselage. The theory was that you were supposed to dive on the target and drop the 100-pounders to suppress the antiaircraft defense while managing to not get shot down, then come back a second time to drop the big one. That practice didn't last long, for what should be obvious reasons.

One of the most tragic parts of the Midway story is the virtual annihilation of three American torpedo bombing squadrons, whose slow, obsolete Douglas TBD "Devastator" aircraft were sitting ducks for Japanese "Zero" fighters. There are no surviving Devastators other than a couple of submerged wrecks--so the filmmakers built museum-grade (but nonflying) replicas. One of these was donated to the USS Midway Museum after filming was complete.

In the ceremony where Lt. Best receives a decoration, we get a glimpse of Dorie Miller, the African-American sailor awarded the Navy Cross for his actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Additional teacher comments: The film spends a fair bit of time on the Doolittle Raid, the Chinese people who helped the raiders escape, and the Japanese Army's reaction to all of this, a campaign of atrocities in occupied China which killed around a quarter million people. This emphasis is probably a result of the fact that Chinese investors provided much of the money required to make Midway after US studios passed on the project. I don't consider that a flaw. While most Americans have at least heard of the Doolittle Raid, few are aware of the subsequent events in China, and bringing that part of the story to our attention is a good thing. However, that emphasis meant that other events had to be left out or only mentioned in passing in order to keep the film to a reasonable length: The carrier Yorktown is barely discussed, and there is no depiction of the exploits of Yorktown's fighter and bomber pilots, or of the attacks on her by the Japanese. That part of the story deserves to be told, too, and would make a great film in its own right.

If you happen to be passing through Chicago's Midway Airport, do take time to check out the Dauntless dive bomber on display there.

Final grade: 99%

5 comments:

NomadUK said...

I do wonder whether everyone just takes that Yamamoto quote from the end of Tora! Tora! Tora! and figures they got it from somewhere reliable.

Mikey Heinrich said...

Oh my God, I LOVE the enthusiasm and depth of detail you have for this series. Your passion really shows through.

Absolutely wonderful stuff! I can't wait for the next installment

Billie Doux said...

What Mikey said. This is a terrific read, Baby M. And I don't tend to watch war movies.

NomadUK said...

Looks like I was pretty much right. From Wikipedia:-

The director of Tora! Tora! Tora!, Richard Fleischer, stated that while Yamamoto may never have said those words, the film's producer, Elmo Williams, had found the line written in Yamamoto's diary. Williams, in turn, has stated that Larry Forrester, the screenwriter, found a 1943 letter from Yamamoto to the Admiralty in Tokyo containing the quotation. However, Forrester cannot produce the letter, nor can anyone else, American or Japanese, recall it or find it. Randall Wallace, the screenwriter of the 2001 film Pearl Harbor, readily admitted that he copied the line from Tora! Tora! Tora!

TJ said...

Fantastic review!

I want more!