October 22, 2020

Midway is that uncommon war movie that strikes all the right notes. Its patriotism is understated, it’s compassionate without cynicism, it’s exciting without drowning in blood, it’s compelling while faithful to fact.

Midway, in Canadian theatres Friday, Nov. 8, tells the story of American aviators, sailors and intelligence officers as they approach and fight the decisive 1942 sea battle.

The tale is truly theirs. The narrative follows the contours of historic fact with uncanny diligence.

The film traces the Pacific war from Pearl Harbour through islet attacks and the Doolittle raid to the June 4-7, 1942 battle — about six months’ war-fighting — centring on pilot Richard Best (Ed Skrein) and the U.S. Navy personnel aboard USS Enterprise, but also following Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) and intelligence officer Lt.-Cmdr. Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) as well as Japanese admirals Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) and Chūichi Nagumo (Jun Kunimura).

A US Navy Dauntless drops a bomb
A U.S. Navy Dauntless dive bomber drops its payload.
U.S. Navy, via Wikipedia.org

“Tell them the truth,” Anna Best (Mandy Moor) advises her husband on leading his airmen. It seems director Roland Emmerich and writer Wes Tooke felt compelled to follow their character’s advice.

That’s not to say the movie’s factually perfect. But the commitment to history as a valuable and resonant form of narrative is refreshing and admirable — a departure from the vein of the director’s earlier The Patriot, or even such a modern classic as Saving Private Ryan.

The film explores the nature of battle in a fuller capacity than a movie without an ensemble cast could. Victory entails both intelligence at the top and gumption at the sharp end. Fighting stresses family members, wears on servicemen, wounds and kills, engenders courage, tragedy, madness, selflessness, atrocity.

Midway is dedicated to the servicemen of both sides. Yet one notes the support of Chinese firms Starlight Culture Entertainment (which has deals with several American directors) and Shanghai Ruyi Entertainment. Japan invaded China in 1937 and American policy opposed to this war of conquest paved the road to Pearl Harbour.

Emmerich had to look outside Hollywood for the $100 million his film required. Yet Midway equals or excels its Hollywood counterparts, because it is honest.

History is the drama of reality and by cleaving to a real narrative, Emmerich conveys an intensely emotive experience as or more effectively than many a work of fiction.

Other war-film makers should follow Emmerich’s formula in devising Midway: just the facts, ma’am — for the facts abound with every kind of passion, pathos and fury.

USS Yorktown is torpedoed at Midway amid bursts of flak
USS Yorktown is torpedoed at Midway amid bursts of flak.
U.S. Navy, via Wikimedia Commons

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