The Battle of Midway in June 1942 inevitably is called the “turning point” of the Pacific war. Certainly it was the most important engagement of the campaign, ending Japan’s unbroken string of victories and permitting the United States’ first offensive two months later at Guadalcanal.
Such a significant event was bound to generate movies, starting with Delmer Daves’ Task Force (1949) starring Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan as pioneering naval aviators. The Midway portion was relatively brief but accurate, providing the memorable line: “Do you know any satisfyin’ profanity?” (Brennan to Cooper, awaiting sighting of the Japanese carriers.)
The next offering was Jack Smight’s Midway (1976) featuring Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, and a boatload of other stars. It was, in a word, dreadful, with atrocious film editing, a convoluted storyline (the carrier battle was extended to two days), a pointless romance, and something north of 70 factual or technical errors, most of which were avoidable. Two examples: jet aircraft and a Forrestal-class carrier.
The current offering is from Roland Emmerich, the German director-producer whose credit descriptions inevitably involve “blockbuster.” He provided a previous history-based study, The Patriot (2000), plus numerous sci-fi films, notably Independence Day (1996).
The script is by Wes Tooke, a newcomer who wrote a dozen episodes for television and internet series.
When the film was announced, most online commentary lamented the selection of former Cheers TV-show bartender Woody Harrelson as Admiral Chester Nimitz. In fairness, much of the criticism seemed based on Harrelson’s unconventional persona and anarchist politics. However, he provides a credible performance as Pacific Fleet Commander-in-Chief.
Other thumbs-up deliveries include Patrick Wilson as intelligence officer Lieutenant Commander Edwin T. Layton, while Brennan Brown does fine as codebreaking Commander Joseph Rochefort, in glorious contrast to Hal Holbrook’s hayseed portrayal in 1976.
A gnarled Dennis Quaid makes a believable Vice Admiral William Halsey, though not quite up to James Cagney’s performance in The Gallant Hours (1960). Jake Weber is properly understated as Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance commanding the USS Enterprise (CV-6) task force, but the Yorktown (CV-5) barely has a walk-on. She is egregiously shown crippled alongside the sinking Lexington (CV-2) at Coral Sea, but then leaves dry dock for Midway—and disappears. Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, the senior U.S. officer present, is absent.
Briton Ed Skrein is competent as VB-6 skipper Lieutenant Richard H. Best. Obviously, Skrein did not know Best, who died in 2001, but he captures Dick’s focused energy and approximates the New Jersey accent. Best’s backseater, the accomplished Chief Radioman Jim Murray, played by Keean Johnson, lamentably is reduced to newbie status as a youngster seeking himself.