Midway – Extra Credit
The recent movie, Midway, focuses on the most pivotal naval battle in the war in the Pacific in World War 2. As you might know, there were two phases of World War 2 that America fought in – the war in Africa then Europe, and then the war in the Pacific Ocean. Our primary enemy in the Pacific was the Japanese navy, and they had struck a huge blow to the American Pacific fleet by bombing Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. That event got America finally into the war, and that’s where the movie starts off. The attack on the fleet at Pearl Harbor represented the greatest intelligence failure in American history at that time (only to be exceeded by the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks), and so the movie spends some time following the exploits of intelligence chief, Edwin Layton (played by Patrick Wilson) and how he tries to figure out with his team where the Japanese navy is headed next.
The movie also spends time showing how real people – American Admirals Halsey, Nimitz, and Spruance and Japanese Admirals Yamamoto and Nagumo – along with the pilots – Dick Best, Wade McCluskey, and Jimmy Doolittle – fought and led in the battle. I like that the film decided not to invent fictional characters to add extra drama or tragedy into the story, because the real people were colorful enough.
I also found the portrayal of the Japanese army and navy interesting and at times, inconsistent. In the credits at the end, the movie was dedicated to both the American and Japanese soldiers who fought in the Battle of Midway. The Japanese admirals are shown to be thoughtful (like Yamamoto’s warning to Layton in 1937 about America backing Japan into a corner) and strategic and honorable. Even when one of the admirals decides to go down with his carrier, his sacrifice is treated with dignity. But the Japanese army was shown to be arrogant and also amazingly cruel and sadistic with the way that they treated the Chinese civilians during their invasion of China beginning in 1931 (it’s estimated that the Japanese army killed 6 million Chinese during their occupation and war with China 1931-1945). The Japanese have never taken responsibility for these deaths nor apologized officially to the Chinese, so this might be a sore spot. We also see a captured American pilot killed mercilessly after he wouldn’t tell what aircraft carrier he took off from.
The movie doesn’t break any new ground, however, and doesn’t really develop its real-life heroes into fully developed characters. They just seem to be cardboard cut-outs, two
dimensional characters who are focused on honor and duty and destroying as many Japanese carriers but without the racism of the time period. There is a lot of American war propaganda that dehumanized the Japanese (see example to the right) that reflected a lot of anti – Asian racism that had been endemic since the mid 1800s when the Chinese arrived on our shores because of the California gold rush. Some historians argue that racism was a motivating factor in the use of the atomic bombs on Japan (though not the only reason). But I think the movie doesn’t want to get bogged down in realism and instead tells an idealized story about the battle of Midway.
One of the really cool things that I enjoyed seeing was the inclusion of film director John Ford who was working for the U.S. Army and had luckily arrived in Midway unknowingly before the attack. His job was to make a film that Americans would see at home to rally support for the war. Ford luckily was there to actually capture the battle in real time and was able to make a documentary about the battle. He also was filming soldiers at the D-Day invasion. Recently on Netflix, there is a 3 part film called Five Came Back that examines five Hollywood directors who made films about World War 2 and how the war affected them. I highly recommend it.
Questions to answer:
- Why do you think there is inconsistent portrayal of the Japanese military? Might it have something to do with the Chinese production company who helped produce the movie? By honoring the Japanese military, do you think this signifies that American – Japanese relations are improving? Why or why not?
- How is this movie realistic? Also how is this movie a reflection of modern movie making (think CGI and other digital effects)?
- Do you think the movie should have just focused on the battle of Midway or do you think that the earlier scenes of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Doolittle’s raid over Japan, and the Solomon and Marshall Islands battles help set up the context for the battle of Midway? Why?
- What are the strengths of the film? Explain. What are the weaknesses of the film? Explain.