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Watching The Movies: ‘Midway’ Is Fitting Homage To Heroes

I grew up on the 1976 version of the story of Midway. I didn’t see it on the big screen but, for years afterward, whenever it came on television, I’d always try to watch. As a history buff, I eventually read Gordon W. Prange’s weighty “Miracle At Midway,” which is the definitive account of the battle. If you’re interested in the details of the battle and don’t have problems lifting heavy objects, this is the book you should read. When I saw the previews for the new retelling of the story of Midway, I knew I had to see it and Veteran’s Day seemed like the perfect day to do it, together with my kids.

If you are even a casual student of American history, you know how the battle turned out so I’ll skip the usual warning about spoilers. Instead, I’ll say that the movie takes time to set the stage for the battle, unlike 2017’s “Dunkirk,” which drops viewers into a firefight within seconds. Even though the Battle of Midway occurred only six months into America’s involvement in WWII, those were a busy few months so you might want to forego the extra-large theater Coke if you don’t want to miss anything.

The movie begins with a prelude set in 1937 in which Edwin Layton, then assistant naval attaché in Tokyo met with Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. In real life, the two men met several times but the movie gives a Japanese motive for the Pearl Harbor attack four years later. Yamamoto tells Layton that the US shouldn’t interfere with Japanese access to raw materials. When President Roosevelt froze Japanese assets in July 1941 in retaliation for the Japanese invasion of Indo-China, Japan lost access to 88 percent of its imported oil and the stage was set for a confrontation between the two powers. At least in part, World War II was a war for oil.

“Midway” spends a fair amount of time on the attack on Pearl Harbor and this is appropriate. Modern Americans who have grown up the era of America as the sole superpower probably cannot imagine the fear that Americans felt in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and for good reason. The defeat at Pearl Harbor was not an isolated occurrence in late 1941 and early 1942. American and British outposts across the Pacific were falling like dominoes. The Philippines, including the fortress island of Corregidor, Wake Island, and Guam all fell quickly as well as British Hong Kong and Singapore. At that stage in the war, the Japanese had better ships and aircraft than the Americans and more of them. The faulty American torpedoes depicted in the movie were a real problem that had to be overcome… quickly. Given the shockingly fast string of victories, the Japanese must have seemed invincible.

The graphic depiction of the disaster at Pearl Harbor is much more effective than the 2001 movie that focused on the sneak attack. Although the attack represents only a fraction of the movie, the desperate struggle for survival on what had been a peaceful Sunday morning is among the most disturbing parts of the movie. The skin on a sailor’s hands is burned off and others fall into pools of flaming oil. The human cost of the disaster hits home when the devil-may-care Lieutenant Commander Dick Best (played by Ed Skrein) finds the badly-burned body of his Naval Academy roommate in a makeshift morgue.

From Pearl Harbor, “Midway” walks the viewer through other milestones of early 1942 including the Doolittle raid on Japan in April. The backstory makes the movie somewhat long but is valuable in describing the situation leading up to Midway. For what it’s worth, my children paid rapt attention throughout the whole two-plus hour film, plus long movies mean that you get more entertainment time per ticket dollar.

In a movie where virtually every character is hero, one man who stands out is Commander Edwin Layton (played by Patrick Wilson). Layton was the intelligence officer who blamed himself for the Pearl Harbor attack and who made it his mission to ensure that another such disaster never happened. Although neither Layton nor Best are listed in the cast for the 1976 movie, both figure prominently in the new version. Charlton Heston’s character from 1976 film, Matt Garth, is based in part on Layton.

Layton is central to the telling of the story of how the US Navy cracked the Japanese code, at least partially. Navy codebreakers were able to pinpoint the target of the Japanese attack and turn the enemy offensive into a trap (cue Admiral Ackbar). Codebreaking is difficult to depict onscreen but both movies handle it well, although the focus of the 1976 version is on Commander Joseph Rochefort, the eccentric cryptologist played 40 years ago by Hal Holbrook and this year by Brennan Brown. Both men put distinctive spins on the character, but I’d like to imagine that Brown’s is closer to the truth.

It is interesting to note that Layton wrote an account of breaking the Japanese code that was not declassified until the 1980s. His book, “And I Was There,” was published by his co-authors in 1985, a year after his death. If you’d like to read the book, as I was thinking of doing, be prepared to either pay up or visit the library. It retails on Amazon for $87.

The actual battle scenes do justice to the technological and impersonal violence of battle. Midway was only the second naval battle in history in which the opposing ships were never within sight of each other. The fighting was conducted entirely by airplanes from both fleets as well as the submarine USS Nautilus, which fired torpedoes at the Japanese fleet but missed. Special effects have come a long way since 1976 and CGI is put to good use in the new movie.

While many of the details of the battle are depicted on screen, their importance may not be apparent to viewers not already familiar with the battle. That, however, is a problem of the medium rather than the movie itself. Motion pictures just don’t lend themselves to pointing out arcane trivia without becoming clunky.

As an example, Ensign George Gay (played by Brandon Sklenar in 2019 and Kevin Dobson in 1976) is depicted in the water cheering on the attacking Americans after being shot down in the first wave of torpedo attacks on the Japanese. What the viewer is not told is that Gay’s Torpedo Squadron 8 from the USS Hornet lost every aircraft that morning and Gay, picked up after 30 hours in the water, was the only survivor of his squadron. Torpedo 8’s sacrifice was not in vain, however. Their low-level attack brought the Japanese Zero fighters down to the surface, allowing the American dive bombers to attack from high altitude relatively unmolested.

It is also difficult to communicate through the movie just how easily the battle could have gone the other way. Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky (played by Luke Evans in 2019 and Christopher George in 1976) and his flight of bombers were running very low on fuel as they searched for the Japanese. McClusky’s decision to order his flight to turn in a direction that turned out to be the correct one allowed the Americans to spot the Japanese destroyer Arashi, which was returning to the fleet after attacking the submarine Nautilus. The submarine’s missed shots ultimately led the American bombers to the Japanese fleet for a devastating attack. The sequence of seemingly random events inspired the title “Miracle At Midway” and is held by many to be evidence of God’s hand on America.

The part of the new movie that had the most profound effect on my children was the depiction of Aviation Machinist Mate First Class Bruno Gaido (played by Nick Jonas). Gaido was absent from the 1976 film and his exploits in the new version had my kids doubting that he was real. A brief Google search later, we determined that Gaido was indeed real as was the incident for which he was given a battlefield promotion by Admiral “Bull” Halsey (played by Dennis Quaid this year and Robert Mitchum in 1976). There were no surviving witnesses to the death of Gaido and his pilot, Ensign Frank O’Flaherty (Russell Dennis Lewis), but the movie depiction may actually be cleaner and quicker than his real-life end.

The cultural difference between the two warring nations is underscored by the fates of Layton and Ryusaku Yanagimoto, captain of the Japanese aircraft carrier Soryu. Where Layton’s superiors gave him the chance to learn from his mistakes at Pearl Harbor, Yanagimoto chose to go down with his ship and deprived his country of his future service.  

In a time of smart bombs and hypersensitivity to casualties on both sides, “Midway” reminds us that things were very different not so long ago. In the fight for survival that was WWII, it was not uncommon for entire units to be virtually wiped out. At Midway, entire squadrons were sacrificed for one or two hits on a carrier. Midway was a victory, but the cost was horrendous.

As with any movie remake, there will be the inevitable comparisons between the versions with proponents of each waging a keyboard assault on the other. I’m not going to do that. They are both fine films and each has points in its favor. My recommendation would be to watch and enjoy them both. In the screening that I watched on Veteran’s Day, veterans, including active-duty soldiers in uniform, were well represented. At the end of the movie, the crowd applauded. A war movie probably can’t get a better endorsement from people who have been there and done that.

Although the movie is not perfect (and what movie is?), it is a fitting vessel to carry the story of the miraculous American victory to a new generation, especially one that has been raised on Hollywood fare that typically depicts the United States as an evil empire. If “Midway” inspires Americans to look more deeply at American history, it will be mission accomplished.

NOTE: This article has been corrected to note that the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 was actually the first naval battle conducted entirely by aircraft.

Additionally, I originally misstated the name of Bruno Gaido’s pilot. That has also been corrected.

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