Midway (2019): A Surprisingly Solid Film

I’ve previously discussed Midway (1976) as an example of a well done Battle Epic.  However, some people may not be aware that there is a more recent version.  Midway (2019) covers the events of the exact same battle with updated cinematography.  Many fans of war movies decided to ignore it upon seeing the trailers due to its superficial resemblance to Pearl Harbor (2001).  Upon seeing the film, I would say that skipping it is a mistake.

As I mentioned in my article on Battle Epics, most modern war movies steer away from the broader scope and prefer to focus on individual characters.  Midway (2019) is no different but, in this case, I do not believe the film suffers for it.  The characters that are used as focal points are well selected to give a sense of the wider aspects of the battle even if that isn’t the focus.  In fact, there are a few of the wider context of the battle that the 2019 movie shows better than the 1976 movie.

One example of this is showing the attack on Pearl Harbor itself.  The movie puts a heavy focus on what this means for the character’s emotional state with one of the focus characters, in particular, developing an urge for personal revenge as a result.  However, the movie does also make mention of the happenstance of the attack leaving the American fleet crippled but the carriers untouched.  This is followed up by walking through the flow of early campaigns and specifically addressing the fact that the US had lost a carrier before the battle and that the Yorktown entered the fight already heavily damaged.  These details were glossed over in the 1976 movie but made more obvious in the 2019 movie even if they weren’t focal points.

Another example of this is the greater focus put on the details of codebreaking techniques.  In the 1976 movie, it is mentioned that code breakers intercepting Japanese communications played a large role in the battle but the details of how that worked were not showcased.  The 2019 movie makes one of the code breakers a focal point character and a large portion of his part of the movie is devoted to how code breakers must extrapolate from incomplete data and how they can turn the snippets they get into actionable intelligence.  They even have the detail of the US fleet maintaining radio silence during the battle so Admiral Nimitz must rely on what the code breakers can gleam from Japanese transmissions to know how the battle is going.  My favorite example of this is the code breakers receiving a transmission from Admiral Nagumo that they can’t decode, but they can tell he is no longer transmitting from his flagship.

However, there is one example of the movie giving this wider perspective that I think it suffers from.  The movie takes the time to show the highlights of the Doolittle Raid.  This is an event that was so dramatic and impressive that I believe it serves to distract from the main point of the movie instead of reinforcing it.  At the same time, it does Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle and his Raiders a disservice by only showing an abbreviated version of their accomplishments.  This event is something that deserves an entire movie of this quality showing the events and I fear that Midway (2019) showed enough to discourage movie producers from making such a movie; at least in the near future.

On the whole, Midway (2019) shows an impressive level of effort towards historical accuracy.  Much of the dialogue is lifted directly from first-hand accounts of the battle.  They also do an excellent job showing what historians refer to as “Nagumo’s Dilemma.”  This is the most common term used to describe a period of time when the Japanese fleet was unsure of if they should load munitions for a ground attack on the island, or a sea attack on the American fleet.  The tactical situation that produced such a dilemma was complicated and difficult to condense into an understandable form for the movie.  I think the movie succeeded, but I was also already familiar with “Nagumo’s Dilemma” so I am somewhat curious if people less familiar with the battle came away feeling like it was adequately explained.  Most certainly, the implications of the momentary indecision are shown clearly even if the dialogue explaining the unsecured fuel and munitions is delivered a bit more bluntly than would have been realistic.

I recommend the movie as a much-watch for any fans of war movies.  It succeeds at the character-focused drama that appeals to wider audiences while also succeeding at the attention to detail that appeals to history buffs.  While I wouldn’t call it a true Battle Epic by how I have defined it in the past, it is close enough to scratch the itch.

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