Gregory Hood, American Renaissance, November 25, 2019
World War II established the ideological foundation of the modern Western order. In the popular imagination, it was a crusade against racism and anti-Semitism. Yet Americans didn’t fight for egalitarianism in 1941; we wanted vengeance for Pearl Harbor. America joined the European war because Germany declared war on us.
The new film Midway reminds us what the war was really like. The title is a slight misnomer; it starts before Pearl Harbor and includes a brisk history of the naval war up until the great battle.
Midway also displays a sophisticated understanding of the Japanese situation. At a dinner before the war, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto warns American intelligence officer Edwin Layton that Japan will be forced into action if America threatens Japan’s oil supplies. The movie also portrays the destructive rivalry between the Japanese Army and Navy. There was so much interservice tension that fanatics threatened to assassinate “moderates” like Yamamoto.
Midway’s characterization of the Pearl Harbor attack is far better than 2001’s Pearl Harbor. In Midway, Japanese naval officers bitterly regret their failure to destroy American carriers because Japan must win the war quickly. However, they pretend Pearl Harbor was a complete success to save face in front of the Army.
There’s no false American bravado about Pearl Harbor. American sailors scramble in confusion, officers are helpless, and death strikes randomly. My stomach churned at the horror of the attack on the battleship Arizona. Still, some of the battle sequences are too obviously computer graphics. You can almost picture the green screen. The dog fights lack Dunkirk’s intensity.
The film’s strength is spectacle, however, especially in the final battle. The first-person perspective of dive bombers is gut-wrenching. It’s hard not to feel awe as American pilots dive straight at targets, facing blistering antiaircraft fire ahead and pursued by enemy fighters from behind. Then they would drop their bomb and pull up at the last second. America truly did produce such men.
Despite the film’s epic scale, it shows the importance of the heroic individual. Many Japanese or American bombs miss by inches, while one pilot destroys an entire carrier with a single hit. Legends such as Chester Nimitz, William Halsey Jr., Raymound Spruance, and James Doolittle have important roles, but there is not enough time to develop their characters.
The Doolittle Raid is one of the film’s high points and provides a humorous moment. Doolittle, downed in China, is surrounded by peasants pointing guns and screaming. When he finally convinces them he bombed Japan, they treat him like a hero.
There are three main plot threads before the battle. The first involves naval aviators C. Wade McCluskey and Richard “Dick” Best. The cocky Best, with New Jersey swagger and over-the-top accent, plays by his own rules. McCluskey tries to tame Best, but ultimately ends up adopting some of his cavalier ways. During the battle, it’s McCluskey who spots a Japanese ship separated from the main battle group and makes the risky decision to pursue. This leads to discovery of the Japanese fleet.
The second plot thread involves Layton, the American who had spoken to Yamamoto before the war. He blames himself for failing to anticipate the Pearl Harbor attack, though he had warned his superiors of it. Layton drives himself relentlessly to discover the Japanese plan. Together with eccentric codebreaker Joseph Rochefort, he learns of the Japanese plan to attack Midway and convinces Admiral Nimitz to set a trap. Yamamoto takes the bait.
The final plot thread is the inner conflict of Best. His self-assurance fades when he’s promoted and assumes responsibility for other pilots. He takes one nervous pilot under his wing, but the young man dies in an accident. He controls his sorrow and moves on. This is the code by which sailors and airmen live. Some may confess fear, but they do their duty. Critics may find this lack of inner conflict simplistic or boring. I found it inspiring.
The final sea-battle is jaw-dropping. Though we obviously know the outcome, I couldn’t help feeling nervous. Masses of aircraft duel in the sky while entire bombing waves are wiped out by fire from the ships. Most films about naval battles, like Master and Commander, are of enemy ships blasting away at close range. Here, the carriers are like floating castles, with knightly pilots flying out to champion their keep.
The main hero is Best. He destroys one carrier, growling, “This is for Pearl,” before dropping his payload. Then, after flying through hell and losing half his squad, he returns for a second run and knocks out another carrier. He does all this despite lung damage from a faulty oxygen tank earlier in the day. This really happened.
The Japanese are mostly portrayed positively. Two officers choose to go down with their ship. Yamamoto is a kind of warrior poet, musing on the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant while he contemplates defeat. Yet there are exceptions. One American rescued from the ocean is tied to an anchor and drowned to scare his wingman into giving information. Japanese aircraft strafe Chinese villagers for no reason. At the end of the film, during an epilogue telling us the protagonists’ fates, we are told the Japanese killed an estimated 250,000 Chinese to punish them for helping Doolittle escape.
This brings us to what is perhaps most important thing about Midway. It is an independent film. No major studio backed it. Director and producer Roland Emmerich needed Chinese investment to complete the project. The film’s emphasis on Japanese atrocities is no accident.
However, there’s a reason Midway had to be produced independently; it’s an old-fashioned war movie. Its heroes are patriotic, brave white men who want to win the war against the “Japs.” If they have any inner conflicts, it’s not with the enemy; it’s doubting their own ability.
There are no blacks with speaking roles; I spotted two in the entire movie. Even Dorrie Miller, the black messman who heroically manned an anti-aircraft gun during the attack on Pearl Harbor, isn’t shown.
Hollywood does not want movies like this. In World War II movies like The Imitation Game or Red Tails, homophobia and racism are the enemy. Inglorious Basterds and Valkyrie have comic book Nazis lurking around every corner. Holocaust movies are a genre unto themselves.
All these films deconstruct the Anglo-American effort in World War II, turning the focus on white racism or anti-Semitism rather than the courage of Allied soldiers. Even films such as Fury or Saving Private Ryan show American soldiers executing prisoners or giving in to cowardice. As R.R. Reno suggests in The Strong Gods, World War II has been reimagined as a war against our own inner racism and fascism.
Not surprisingly, Midway got mixed reviews from critics, despite overwhelming approval from theatergoers.
DeseretNews criticized “cartoon patriotism.” The Hollywood Reporter asked “how large is the potential audience in 2019?” and “how many people want staunchly old-fashioned pictures like Midway?” After all, “the demographic that clings to a romantic notions of a ‘Greatest Generation’ shrinks by the day.”
The Independent, in a review called “A cold and soulless exercise in American jingoism,” declared “the film’s heavy use of a racial slur” from “the mouths of characters we’re meant to accept as paragons of heroism” to be “troubling.” “Why stick to reality here when the film elsewhere consistently shuns truth in favor of entertainment?” asks Clarisse Loughrey, further saying there’s “something toxic about the particular kind of heroism Midway celebrates.”
In contrast, the Chinese government promotes unapologetically nationalist movies. Almost 20 years ago, the Chinese film Hero practically celebrated the use of brutal tactics to unite China and forthrightly called for individual sacrifice. Quentin Tarantino had no problem celebrating Chinese nationalism, lending his name to Hero to give it wider distribution.
Yet in America, Mr. Tarantino freely admitted his “hate” for John Ford, who went on to direct The Searchers and other classics after World War II. While promoting 2015’s Django Unchained, a film Louis Farrakhan thought was “preparation for a race war,” Mr. Tarantino condemned Ford’s westerns. They “kept alive this idea of Anglo-Saxon humanity compared to everyone else’s humanity,” he said.
Midway thus raises an interesting question about the consequences of China’s increasing cultural power. Chinese oligarchs and government officials may actually be less hostile to celebrating American patriotism and old-fashioned values than “our” filmmakers and producers. The same may also be true of Russia, where there is a similar surge in patriotic films such as T-34, Sobibor, and Stalingrad, with the government backing other nationalist projects.
Midway has already surprised critics with its strength at the box office. If Hollywood refuses to serve the American market, maybe foreigners will.