A couple of weeks ago, I had a chance to interview National Museum of the Pacific War Director Rorie Cartier and Chris McDougal, who heads up the Fredericksburg-based museum’s archives and collections.
The topic was the upcoming movie “Midway,” which is important because it features Adm. Chester Nimitz as one of its main characters. Woody Harrelson was set to play Nimitz, and the actor made his way to Fredericksburg to learn more about Nimitz, who was born in Fredericksburg and grew up in Kerrville before attending the U.S. Naval Academy.
I sort of dreaded the conversation, because I had fallen victim to similar hype around a World War II movie nearly 20 years ago — “Pearl Harbor.” So, I told Cartier and McDougal that I was sort of on the fence about this story, because the Pearl Harbor movie had been so bad.
However, the one thing that reassured me from their conversation with Harrelson that director Roland Emmerich was taking the material seriously. They too conveyed their reservations, but they were hopeful.
Now, the critics haven’t been exactly kind to the movie, and I was on the fence about seeing it. However, my wife and I went on Sunday to see it. For my wife, this kind of movie is a bit tough, because our son is in the Navy and on a destroyer, but she put on her Navy Mom shirt and away we went.
I don’t want to be presumptuous here (that triggers some), but you should really see this movie. The critics be damned. The only problem with the movie is that it tries to cram a lot into 138 minutes of film, but if you pay attention the movie does a lot of smart things.
First off, this is no “Pearl Harbor,” the awful Michael Bay disaster pic with Ben Affleck. When the movie came out in 2001, one of my good friends organized a showing for more than 70 Pearl Harbor survivors, and I had written about the event and covered it. Frankly, I was really embarrassed how bad the movie was.
I’ve seen the other movies about Pearl Harbor and this period, including the 1976 version with Henry Fonda and Charlton Heston, and this is a better movie. In my opinion, “Tora, Tora, Tora” is sort of the standard here for this time period, but “Midway” captures the depth and breadth of Pearl Harbor and as the Navy tried to get back into action against the Japanese.
As I mentioned, if you pay attention, you’ll see snippets where Dorie Miller earns his Navy Cross from Nimitz, downed pilot George Gay who treaded water in the middle of the battle, the gruesome execution of a captured American sailor and a pilot, the internal battles between the Japanese Navy and Army over the fate of their country and a moment where legendary movie director John Ford is wounded while filming the initial Japanese assault on Midway.
However, I think the biggest takeaway from the movie is how it smartly depicts the retaliatory raid by Gen. Jimmy Doolittle against Japan after Pearl Harbor. In the movie, Doolittle, who is played by Aaron Eckhardt, realizes that his actions may have dire consequences on the Chinese people who gave him shelter after the raid. In fact, thousands of Chinese civilians were killed by the Japanese in the search for Doolittle and his men.
In reality, this would have been a great miniseries — ala “Band of Brothers” or “The Pacific.” One of the most fascinating stories is how the Navy was able to crack the Japanese code and lure the Japanese navy into a trap. The original “Midway” movie did a pretty good job of telling that story with Fonda playing Nimitz and Hal Holbrook playing the codebreaker.
I also liked Harrelson playing Nimitz and thought he did a great job of playing one of America’s greatest military leaders. Even tempered and thoughtful, Nimitz was the right man to lead the Pacific Fleet after Pearl Harbor.
No movie is perfect; there’s a lot of CGI in the film, and the acting at times isn’t the greatest, but my mom said it best in a text message to me after seeing it herself — it’s hard to fathom the courage shown by those men.
It’s worth a few bucks to see, because the folks who made this film meant it to be a reminder about the sacrifice and courage of the men asked to do the impossible.
Louis Amestoy is the managing editor of the Kerrville Daily Times.