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‘Midway’ has thrilling war scenes, but is a waste of good history

The new World War II movie Midway is midway between being a terrible movie and a so-so movie, but it’s nowhere near being a good movie. That’s a shame, because the history is plenty dramatic and the material would be quite fresh to most young moviegoers.

Its ten lead characters are all based on real, named people, so the film has historical accuracy going for it, at least by Hollywood standards. But real people thinly drawn do not make for compelling drama, no matter how hair-raising the circumstances they find themselves in.

Midway tells the real-life story of the war’s most important naval battle in the Pacific. After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy was determined to never again be caught flat-footed by the Japanese.

“Pearl Harbor is the greatest intelligence failure in American history. This can never happen again,” a Navy officer says.

The Battle of Midway took place a mere six months later.

Despite the presence of much better known figures, like Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) and Vice-Admiral “Bull” Halsey (Dennis Quaid), the film gives a refreshing amount of of screen time early on to Naval Intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson). His warnings about a possible Pearl Harbor attack had gone unheeded and he was now tasked with ferreting out Japan’s next big move. His team of encryption experts and code-breakers eventually singled out a tiny, two-mile atoll called Midway. An American surprise attack on a Japanese surprise attack on the American base in Midway was set in motion.

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In war, as in life, things never go according to plan, but failure, as they say, was not an option.

“If we lose, the Japanese own the West coast … Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles,” warns an admiral.

The movie then kicks into derring-do mode. First, it goes a little off-topic to cover Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s daring raid over Tokyo. And then it re-directs its attention to the Battle of Midway for the last half of the movie.

The film jumps around a lot between Admiral Nimitz plotting strategy, Bull Halsey commanding but also trying to hide an illness, brash dive bomber Dick Best getting frustrated with the military brass, Lieutenant Commander Wade McCluskey taking guff from Best but proving him wrong in the end, pilot Bruno Gaido taking death-defying risks, and many others, often nameless, exhibiting unadulterated fear, determination, and bravado. The Japanese commanders also get a fair share of screen time as they plot and battle and plot some more.

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It’s admirable, I suppose, that the film wants to incorporate as many aspects and angles of a military operation as it can, but it comes at the cost of emotional resonance. It’s hard to cheer the success, or share the worry, or grieve the loss of people who you’ve barely gotten to know. Instead of insights into the psyches of the various men under duress, the film offers cliched lines of dialogue like …

“You’ll remember this moment for the rest of your life.”

(Well, you’re about to risk near certain death, so I would hope, if you’re lucky enough to survive, you would remember it for the rest of your life.)

Like a lot of war movies, the scenes that work best in Midway are the battles themselves. The aerial dogfights, the dive-bombing planes, the submarine torpedo attacks, the carrier deck explosions are all elaborate CGI effects but they are at times quite gripping. If the battle scenes are all you care about in a war movie, then Midway fills the bill. But even here, the very strength of the movie is undercut or at least compromised by a lack of context.

The military strategies are so poorly explained that most of the time the individual action sequences work only as individual action sequences, and not as part of any greater whole. In other words, the film shows us what’s happening, but not why it’s happening the way that it is. And that’s disappointing to those of us who want more than just the visceral excitement of a video game. It’s a waste of good history.

Seeing Midway is not a bad way to acknowledge Veterans’ Day. A better way to honor veterans would have been for Midway to be a better movie.

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