Thoughts on “Midway”

I picked up “Midway” at a reasonable price from the local Walmart — which is how I get most of my movies, which may explain some things about their quality — and decided to watch it in a concerted effort to try to reduce my stacks of movies to something that isn’t taking over the entire stand in my living room.  Of course, I tend to acquire the movies faster than I can watch them and so the stacks tend to get bigger and bigger, so much so that I had to sort everything out into horror, science-fiction, family, and everything else (arguably, the science-fiction stack is the largest, but the horror one is divided into a stack for standalone movies and for series, so it probably comes out on top in the long run).  But, hey, these things don’t go bad and there will be times when my watching exceeds my acquiring — which is why I was able to switch to the Stephen King movies when the stack of standalone horror movies started to run a bit dry — so they won’t go to waste.

My desire to watch this movie in particular was also spawned by my reading a bunch of World War II books and so I was really in the mood for a WWII movie, and was hoping that this would be a good one.

As I was loading the DVD and heading to the menus, however, I started thinking a bit about how such a movie would work.  I could see how a movie like “Pearl Harbor” — which I haven’t seen — would work.  What you’d do is start with building the personal lives of the people that were going to be involved and focused on to get us knowing them as people, while the political aspects were introduced and running in the background.  Then you’d spend a lot of time on the battle itself, highlighting the tragedy as the people that we spent what would probably be the first half of the movie following were killed and highlighting the heroics of those we followed as well, ending with the declaration of war and then a coda that says that despite the “Day that will live in infamy” the U.S. ultimately defeated the Japanese.  The thing is, though, that Pearl Harbor was a very human and personal event, especially with its hugely tragic events.  The Battle of Midway, however, was pretty much a strategic victory that played out over a number of hours and a number of raids.  The success of the U.S. forces at Midway had little to do with individual heroism and more to do with the Japanese being outfoxed and extending themselves too much in an attempt to achieve another great victory and eliminate the American fleet like they almost had done at Pearl Harbor.  Given that “Midway” was a Hollywood drama, how was it going to make that sort of strategic thinking interesting?

It turns out that it doesn’t do that all that well, but perhaps not for the reason that you might think.

I have commented before about how a lot of modern movies — especially horror movies, which are the ones that I most watch and comment on — often seem to focus on putting in the various tropes of the genre, but they don’t understand what makes those tropes work and so end up not developing them or paying them off, and so it ends up being the case that we can see the obvious tropes but they don’t work to elicit the emotions that they should.  “Midway” has that in spades.  It has all of the expected war movie tropes and yet not one of them is really paid off in a way that would make us care about them.  The pilot that it focuses on is a bit of a maverick and is one of the few properly preparing for war — training with no-power landings on the carrier, for example — but neither his preparedness nor his abilities nor his views nor his clashes with his commanding officer is ever used.  In an early scene, one of his close friends is killed a Pearl Harbor and while at the end of the movie he drops a bomb on a carrier and says that it’s for him it’s been so long since that guy was brought up that emotionally it falls flat.  He even gets the heroic shot of dropping it right on the “rising sun” logo on the carrier’s deck and it’s just an obvious attempt to invoke that sort of patriotic fervor … except that dive bombers don’t work that way and even if they did that scene isn’t set up and so emotionally falls flat.  As for the clash with his commanding officer, there’s an undercurrent of the commanding officer not being able to cut it as a dive bomber and getting placed there for the final battle and having to do it, but he manages to pull through and score a crushing blow — and survive — and that wasn’t brought up until rather late in the movie so it has no emotional punch.  And the pilot who loses confidence in himself but goes out at the end anyway is again something that isn’t focused on enough for us to really care about it.  And there are a number of these little plots that are brought up and seemingly dealt with that aren’t developed enough for us to really care about them.  Thus, they seem to be there only because they are expected to be there in a war movie, but they don’t add anything to it.

The worst example of this is what would be one of the main personal plots in any other war movie:  the main pilot with his wife and kids and their fear for him and the fact that he has to go out and almost get killed — and he does get injured — in order to achieve victory against the enemy.  They set out the relationship at the beginning, but the first big discussion they have is over his wanting them to leave, not her wanting him to quit or take less risks, and while he does take risks that he might not have needed to there’s no link to her feeling that they were unnecessary.  There’s a scene where all the wives are waiting for word on what’s happening and she is nervous about it, but that’s pretty much an isolated scene.  And she waits for him after the battle to find out that he can’t fly again and says that he has the rest of his life to figure out what he’ll do if he can’t fly, but this doesn’t resonate because it’s not a conclusion of any arc that was established or even a reference to something that was said earlier, so it comes out of nowhere and, again, is just aping the “injured hero returns to his relieved family” plot to no real purpose.  Ironically, they actually had a better plot for this with the code breaker Layton working himself to death to make up for Pearl Harbor and his wife wanting him to slow things down a bit, but this isn’t focused on and isn’t even really referenced at the end.

The movie also has an issue where it is entirely unwilling to tell us who is speaking, even when it would make sense to.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but given that we aren’t sure of the command structures of the American and especially the Japanese fleets it can make us wonder just who is doing what so that we can figure out what emotions we are supposed to be feeling.  For example, at the end one of the Admirals, I guess, stays behind on the ship he is scuttling in an emotional scene but it doesn’t bother to say who he or his subordinates who want to stay — one does, one is ordered to leave — actually are and so we aren’t sure how tragic this is supposed to be.  I assume that it’s supposed to be referring to Nagumo going down with the ship for being responsible for the disaster, but I can’t be certain of that and right now can’t remember if he did or didn’t do that in the actual battle itself.  Again, I’m more up-to-date on the particulars than most people and even _I_ can’t remember the details enough to fill in the blanks, so the average moviegoer will probably be even less able to do that, so the movie could have spent more time — and it would have only taken an extra line here or there — making sure that we know who was who and what was what.

The performances, however, are pretty good, especially Woody Harrelson as Nimitz.  However, there’s not enough for them to work with to make this all work.  At the end of the day, then, I think that for most people this could be a serviceable if uninspired war movie, but for me all it does it make me want to look up and read about the actual battle instead.  Given that, this is not a movie that I want to watch again.

One Response to “Thoughts on “Midway””

  1. Thoughts on “The Dead Zone” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] when I talked about “Midway”, I noted that it felt like it was trying to reference war movie tropes but didn’t develop […]

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