But only just barely. I was seriously considering a does not recommend rating. It’s borderline.
Roland Emmerich loves him some epic spectacle. The kind of films he loves making are the BIG ones. The sort of screen grandeur you would have expected Charleton Heston to have headlined back in the Fifties.
This has always been his preferred metier. Stargate, Godzilla, Independence Day, 2012, it’s not just being a master of disaster, the man like to paint with a big brush on a big canvass. It’s not a surprise that he was entranced by the idea of directing a film about the biggest naval battle in American history.
Quick overview for the historically illiterate. For six months after the disaster of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had run the table. They had had a string of victories on land and sea and had seemed unstoppable. But in truth they were overextended. Unlike Germany’s early victories that got them factories and built-up infrastructure. Japan’s wins got them raw materials and rice paddies, these are not great for building ships and planes. An invasion of the United States wasn’t realistic. For that matter even trying to take Hawaii looked like it would be a Japanese Gallipoli and they could not absorb that kind of damage and hang on to China.
The fact was that they needed to get America out of the war before Russia became a problem for them. The best way to do that was to engage the US Pacific Fleet in a battle of annihilation. With the Pacific fleet sunk and Hawaii and the American west coast unprotected, a peace initiative with the United States could then be pursued.
Yamamoto felt that an aggressive strike at Midway Island that threatened Hawaii would force Nimitz to sortie the US fleet to protect the island. He would then swoop in with his numerically superior battleship fleet and crush the American navy just like Admiral Togo had crushed the Russians at Tsushima.
Lieutenant Joe Rochefort of Signals Intelligence started hearing a lot of chatter about objective AF. Midway island seemed a likely candidate, so to confirm that, a fake transmission was sent in the clear that the water condensers On Midway were out of commission. The Japanese obliging reported that the water condensers were out on AF. Admiral Nimitz now knew where the enemy was going to be and when.
The Japanese Kaigun was divided into three groups, the invasion Taskforce, the air Taskforce commanded by Nagumo and the main battle fleet commanded by Yamamoto himself.
After the first bombing run on Midway, the Japanese carrier born bombers were being rearmed for a second wave attack on the island when the American fleet was spotted. Nagumo changed targets, deciding to go after the American carrier force and started rearming his bombers for a torpedo run on the US Fleet. At that most critically vulnerable moment, the American dive-bombers arrived and started their run when the Japanese carrier decks were covered with bombs. A single squadron of divebombers proved absolutely devastating. In minutes three Japanese carriers were burning and would soon sink. The remaining Kaigun carrier, Hiryu, counter-attacked and took out the USS Yorktown. Leaving only USS Enterprise and USS Hornet. Admiral Spruance attacked again and the Japanese lost the Hiryu.
Yamamoto was a devout poker player and in high-level poker you are playing the man not the deck and the Japanese commander in chief thought he was facing Admiral “Bull” Halsey. Yamamoto (perhaps rightfully) thought that Halsey couldn’t resist pursuing the wounded carrier fleet, so he ordered the remnants of Nagumo’s task force to make a disorganized retreat toward his battleship fleet, hoping to smash the American navy with raw dreadnaught firepower. But Halsey was in sickbay and Admiral Spruance was in command of the American task force, he chose not to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and withdrew without further engagement. Battle concluded.
A funny thing about the Battle of Midway is that at the time it was thought of as strategically indecisive. The immediate view was that the victory was merely a status quo anti-plus for the United States. After all, we didn’t sink any battleships and that’s what really counted right? However opinions quickly changed as to the importance of aircraft carriers and in 1944 work was halted on the American super-battleship USS Montana. When she put to sea a year later she had been converted into a supercarrier and was named the USS Midway.
I can’t fault Emmerich for sweating the details. He made sure every single tiny thing was period accurate. There was a shit ton of Pacific War minutiae that was correct down to the buttons on the sailor’s shirts and a FOD walk on the deck of the carrier after flight operations. The events of the battles were painstaking in their authenticity. The bow of the Arizona blew off just like it was supposed to. The Akagi went up when the aviation fuel vaporized just like it was supposed to. He got every small detail right as well as the sequence of events. In fact I would have to say he did a better job on that than the 1976 version did. And in 1976 Midway was very much a living memory.
Comparisons between the two films are unavoidable. Emmerich’s version scores over the older in several areas. Detail accuracy as I already mentioned. Better cinematography for another, the ’76 version was overly reliant on decades-old battlefield footage. Emmerich’s was also more historically accurate. Opinions of historians over some key events have changed and the 2019 version of Midway reflects those.
In the end however, the 1976 film is better movie.
Why? Because it was limited in scope.
Emmerich’s version is just too big. Too much is getting crammed into too short of a running time for the events that it’s chronicling. Midway stretches from a dinner in Japan before the war to Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raid and then the battle of Midway itself. These are three major events and they are packed into a two hour and eighteen minutes run time.
It also tries to shoehorn in From Here to Eternity romance elements and there isn’t enough time for that either. This is aside from the fact that Emmerich is no better than Michael Bay about stuff like that. Also there were clearly major cuts made that leave you going, “Woah minute what just…didn’t happen? Did I miss something?” For example there is a build-up to the Battle of the Coral Sea and then we don’t see any of it. There is cheering when the Yorktown joins the fleet but there wasn’t enough build-up for the audience to be happy about it. The Hiryu launches it’s counterattack, then we only hear of the Yorktown being sunk afterward. Too many payoffs without setups and setups that weren’t paid off.
This film would have made a very good 1980s mini-series. But here there is too much being painted on too small of a canvas.
In summary: If you know something about the Battle of Midway already then it will probably interest you. But if you don’t there really isn’t much here for you.
Cataline Recommends with Reservations