The Battle of Midway is one of the most decisive and dramatic events in American history. Six months after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese navy set a trap hoping to destroy the US navy’s aircraft carriers and win the war in the Pacific. But the US navy sprung its own trap and its pilots sank three Japanese aircraft carriers in five minutes and a fourth later in the day. It was the US navy that had won the war in the Pacific.
Considering it is such an important event it hasn’t been well served by Hollywood. The 1976 film Midway does a good job of guiding the audience through the events of the battle but the production comes off as cheap. Little effort was made to make anything look like 1942 rather than 1976 and the interiors look like they were filmed on the sets of Quincy. The battle scenes are lifted from John Ford’s classic documentary about the battle. Much better are the Japanese films, like Storm Over the Pacific and Isoroku.
So a new attempt to portray the events of June 1942 is welcome. The new movie, Midway, is good, overall, and well worth seeing. It covers a big chunk of history, taking in Pearl Harbor, the Marshall-Gilbert Raids, and the Doolittle Raid, all before arriving at Midway Island. Indeed, it spends too long getting to the battle to leave enough time to fully present the events. The clever ruse by which Naval Intelligence discovered that Midway was the Japanese navy’s target is a throwaway here, and the delicate tactical aspects are neglected so that it just looks likes to lots of planes and ships slamming into each other. That does mean that there are some genuinely exhilarating combat sequences and that the movie serves as a good potted history of the early stages of the Pacific war.
More importantly, Midway is one of the most expensive independent films ever made. Director Roland Emmerich – best known for noisy blockbusters like Independence Day – couldn’t get a studio to bankroll it and had to turn to individuals for the funds, resulting in $76 million, and an additional $24 million in equity, mostly from Chinese investors. It is a sad reflection on Hollywood that it doesn’t think the incredible true story of the Battle of Midway is one worth telling but that another dreadful Transformers yarn is. Or is it a reflection on the movie going public?
Either way, it is to Emmerich’s credit that he saw the value in telling the story of those dramatic events and the brave men who took part in them and was entrepreneur enough to make it happen. Sure, the movie is often either old fashioned or cheesy depending on your point of view, but for those reasons alone Midway is worth seeing.
John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.