Midway

When I was small, I’d visit one of my aunties and, while she took tea and talked with my mum and grandmother, I’d amuse myself with whatever was around the house, including a full-size poker machine my uncle kept in a spare room. It’s probably due to playing on that machine – using money it was loaded it with – that I learned around the age of seven or thereabouts that you can put loads of money into one, and barely get a return. I’ve never looked twice at poker machines as an adult.

I’m already digressing as I think back on those years, because what I was actually thinking of was a massive, spiral-bound book of war movies that I’d often come across when visiting there. This had loads of black and white photos from war movies made in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and so on. I used to pore for what felt like hours over these images, imagining what the movies must be like, just from their names and the pictures therein. Some of the images were quite horrific, now I think about it.

A few years back I was thinking about that book and one of the films I remembered from it: Tora Tora Tora! “You know,” I thought to myself, “I remember reading about that film as a kid, but I’ve never seen the damn thing. Why is that?” So I sought it out and watched it one Friday night, quite surprised that the film gave a lot of airtime to the Japanese side of the story (in this case, the attack on Pearl Harbour), and wasn’t just a US-centric rah-rah session. I later learned that the film essentially had different directors for the ‘American sequences’ and the ‘Japanese sequences’. Quite a rare thing.

So when Midway emerged a couple of years back and I saw the trailer, it struck me that it might be a return to that kind of old-school war movie vibe that has fallen out of favour with mass audiences these days. Basically unless there’s a lot of spandex and it can make a quick billion, Hollywood’s not too interested in making big blockbusters like this any more. Which is a shame, because I think there’s a lot more heart and soul in something like this – being based on real events – than in someone in a cape flying around and repeating the same storyline over and over again. Have you noticed the way most superhero movies are basically the same story? Yeah, me too. But again, I digress, dear reader.

Although I was quite interested in seeing it, I only got to see Midway on Prime Video last night and, frankly, it didn’t disappoint. It begins before WW2 starts, then spends a lot of time on Pearl Harbour (so it’s almost like a mini Tora Tora Tora! in some ways), then uses that huge event to set the scene for what comes next. For example, this includes Chester Nimitz – played straight by Woody Harrelson – being selected by President Roosevelt to be the commander-in-chief of the United States Pacific Fleet, and sent to Hawaii to co-ordinate the action which eventually leads to the Battle of Midway.

A great deal of the story is seen through the eyes of pilots from dive bomber and torpedo bomber squadrons, with Dick Best being the main character among them, although several get quite a bit of screentime. I have to say I’d never heard of Dick Best until I saw the film, but when you see what he does at Midway – all historically correct – you just marvel at, (a) how anyone survives combat and, (b) how one person can have a massive effect on a large battle. I shall say no more for fear of spoilers.

The film does it’s best to give a taste of all sorts of actions that were also happening around this time. The ‘Doolittle Raid’ is covered for example. Not in huge detail, but it’s not glossed over, by any means. That story could be a movie in its own right. Similarly, there’s some scenes of the USS Nautilus submarine in action during Midway, but it’s not a huge sequence. Again, you could probably make a movie out of its part in the war, but in Midway it’s only a bit-part. I love this extra colour in the movie.

Something else I loved about Midway is that being a straightforward, they-don’t-make-em-like-this-anymore kind of film, it’s not trying to do anything weird. You don’t have 1940s guys in the middle of a war coming out with thoughts better suited to a NYC coffee house, circa 2016. They’ve simply gone to the history books and made a story from what’s there. The dialogue, particularly, feels realistic to the era. At times I would think about a line of dialogue and how you could almost parody it, but the film isn’t self-conscious about that sort of stuff, which is refreshing. As a result, it feels nicely authentic. People really did talk differently 80 years ago, especially in formal situations. Watch the cinereels.

For a film that runs over two hours,¬†Midway kept my attention all the way through. I mentioned all the little ‘extras’ that are included in the story (Doolittle raid, Nautilus, etc), and things like that really help to entertain you, then throw you back to the main story and propel it forward. The flipside to this is that you never really get inside the head of most of the characters, but you certainly know who they are and understand what they’re about, even if you couldn’t call this a character study in any sense of the term. You learn the most about many of them when we get to the end of the film and have the near-obligatory still photos of the real person, plus a brief biography. Interestingly, whereas most films do a segment like that with one picture fading into another,¬†Midway does it better. You will see a scene with the character, then we pause on a photo of the real-life character with their bio. Then we go to another scene, rinse and repeat. It’s a clever way of doing it and kind of taps you on the shoulder to say the movie’s winding down, but isn’t quite over yet. I don’t think I’ve seen another film do this.

If you can’t guess, I highly recommend¬†Midway, assuming you have an interest in the subject matter. Even without that, I think an average viewer who’s open to watching a war movie could be really impressed with the CG renderings of dogfights, not to mention a storyline which is easy to follow, and genuinely leaves you wondering how some characters are going to fare in the end. It’s a winner.

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