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72 Hours: a Review of “Midway”

Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron;
thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
Be wise now therefore, O ye kings:
be instructed, ye judges of the earth. – Psalm 2: 9-10

It’s Veterans Day, which you know and which I mention to explain why I’m reviewing a film that has little to do with Catholicism explicitly, but everything to do with the kind of self-sacrifice Christianity, more than any other religion, has made central to its teaching and finds its strongest secular counterpart for us in those who have served our country.

German director Roland Emmerich has made the best film about Americans in World War II since Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1999), although not at that level of achievement. His Midway – a tense, action-filled movie that is very much better than the star-studded 1976 film of the same title – is a welcome reminder of why we celebrate those who serve.

Midway begins with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Those sequences are good, although one is conscious of the video-game-like computer-generated imagery (CGI), partly because its execution is at times imperfect (that’s the world we live in), and partly because you know the dive-bombing and strafing Japanese Zeros and extravagant explosions and burning ships cannot possibly be live-action. Imperfect though it is, it puts you smack-dab in the action – much more so than Michael Bay’s 2001 film, Pearl Harbor.

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Early on, we meet Edwin T. Layton (played in yet another fine performance by Patrick Wilson), the Naval intelligence officer who had warned of an impending Japanese attack on Pearl, and who would help guide the later plan for the Battle of Midway. Layton had been stationed in Tokyo in the 1930s as an attaché and spoke Japanese. He even met there with Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa), the admiral who would oversee the Pearl Harbor raid and would plan the attack on Midway Island, which the Japanese coveted as a staging point for their hoped-for invasion of America’s West Coast.

In one conversation with Yamamoto, Layton tells the Admiral that, of course, “nobody wants war.” Yamamoto smiles. Knowingly. Mr. Wilson’s eyes show that Layton has not missed this subtle “tell.”

The newly appointed Admiral Chester Nimitz, now CINCPACFLT (Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet) – well played by Woody Harrelson – knows the boys at the Pentagon still don’t grasp the value of Layton’s knack for piecing together intercepted Japanese communications, and Nimitz allows Layton and Joseph Rochefort (a fine Brennan Brown), the eccentric codebreaker who pads around the office in slippers and a robe, to do what they do. In fact, he bets everything on their ability to decipher and describe the Japanese Navy’s next moves.

Much of the film depicts naval aviators taking off from and landing on aircraft carriers, always a harrowing sight. In combat missions, the flight crews discover that the torpedoes they drop – that land in the ocean and speed towards a Japanese carrier or battleship – simply bounce off a ship’s hull with a metallic thud. The oxygen mixture in one pilot’s cockpit is FUBAR and burns his lungs. Machine guns jam. One must remember that the regimes in both Germany and Japan were deeply, almost essentially militaristic and that this was not true in the United States. When the attack on Pearl Harbor came and America was forced to enter the war, the nation was flatfooted, undermanned, and perilously short on war materiel.

Part of what made the Allied war efforts ultimately successful was America’s “can-do” spirit: the ability to problem solve on the fly and to sacrifice for the common good.

Paul Johnson wrote of this in his superb book Modern Times: “One reason the Americans won Midway was by reducing a three-month repair-job on the carrier Yorktown [badly damaged at the Battle of the Coral Sea] to forty-eight hours, using 1,200 technicians round the clock.”

This incident involved Admiral Nimitz, who, when told that the Yorktown couldn’t possibly be ready in less than ninety days, said: “We must have this ship back in 72 hours.” One may imagine the blank stares of the engineers. But they did it – early. And as the ship left Pearl Harbor to engage the Japanese at Midway, you could see the lightning arcs of welders still working in the night. A version of the story is in Emmerich’s Midway, but not that vivid, nighttime image, which in real life captured both can-do resolve and self-sacrifice: those welders weren’t combat-sailors. The Yorktown was sunk at Midway.

There are enough grip-the-armrest excitements in Midway to make it worth the price of admission. You miss some dialog owing to the noise level of the fighter and bomber engines and, again, those frequent explosions.

There are other solid performances besides those already mentioned, including Dennis Quaid as “Bull” Halsey, Luke Evans as Wade McClusky, Aaron Eckhart as Jimmy Doolittle, and Nick Jonas as an ill-fated machinist mate/gunner. But there are two actors at the center of the lives-of-the-warriors-and-their-wives subplot who don’t rise to the dramatic level asked of them: Ed Skrein as Dick Best, commander of the flight group that led the air battle at Midway, and Mandy Moore, as his long-suffering wife, Ann. Their performances are blandly competent but hardly the star turns they might have been in better hands. The orator Demosthenes clarified his speaking voice by practicing with pebbles in his mouth, removing them one by one. Mr. Skrein has left the gravel in.

Most of the actors in Midway had the honor of portraying men and women who participated in the actual events, including Geoffrey Blake, as the great Hollywood director John Ford, who was at Midway in the midst of the battle (on War Department assignment) and kept his cameras rolling. You can hear in Ford’s The Battle of Midway [2] what you don’t hear in Emmerich’s film: the use of the derogatory “Japs.”

Remember to say a prayer today for all those who have served honorably to defend everything we Americans hold dear. Midway puts their courage on full display.

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Midway is rated PG-13. Obviously, there’s plenty of violence, and it’s about sailors, who talk like sailors. With Luke Kleintank, Darren Criss, Tadanobu Asano, Keenan Johnson, and more than 100 others. Robby Baumgartner’s cinematography and Adam Wolfe’s editing may attract Oscar consideration.

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Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and Board Secretary of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is available on audio.