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‘Midway’ World War II movie thrills with first-person perspectives

Battle of Midway (U.S. Navy/Released)

In the new movie “Midway,” director Roland Emmerich thrills not with the fabled World War II underdog story of U.S. code breaking, strategy and luck, already well known in history, but with his detailed and rich visual-effects immersion into three seminal events: Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raid and, finally, victory at Midway.

Moviegoers are on the teak deck of the USS Arizona as folding wooden chairs are arranged for church service next to 1915-era armored bulkheads in congested Battleship Row as Japanese planes start strafing on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

The view of the 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers that lumber off the carrier USS Hornet in April 1942 to attack Tokyo is from the flight deck and among the aircraft themselves, like being surrounded by a herd of elephants.

And there are the over-the-top action sequences that Emmerich is well known for from films including “Independence Day,” “Godzilla,” “White House Down” and “2012.”

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Amid a Fourth of July’s worth of anti-aircraft fire exploding up close around naval dive bombers attacking Japanese forces at Midway, viewers are practically in the cockpit of Lt. Dick Best’s SBD Dauntless and strapped to 1,000-pound bombs as both streak toward enemy aircraft carriers below.

“‘Midway’ is a true epic and it’s told at a certain level of scope that’s now become common in superhero and science fiction films,” screenwriter and Navy veteran Wes Tooke said in a film release.

On Sunday night Emmerich, Tooke and stars Woody Harrelson (Adm. Chester Nimitz), Ed Skrein (pilot Best) and Patrick Wilson (Pacific Fleet intelligence officer Lt. Cmdr. Edwin Layton) attended a red-carpet screening of “Midway” at Pearl Harbor’s Sharkey Theater, where more than 400 sailors got to see the two-hour, 18-minute movie.

“Midway” is set for general release Nov. 8, ahead of Veterans Day weekend.

Emmerich said he took on “Midway” because it is such an iconic moment in history but an overlooked one.

“I was amazed how many people know what happened at Pearl Harbor but how little people know what happened at Midway,” he said last night. “For us it was absolutely clear to … start the film at Pearl Harbor, because without Pearl Harbor you don’t know what an amazing comeback story that was for the country, which was like totally unprepared for war.”

Emmerich and the stars of the movie visited with sailors on the destroyer USS Halsey in Pearl Harbor before the red-carpet event.

The U.S. victory 1,300 miles from Hawaii was dubbed the “Miracle at Midway.” Craig Symonds said in his book “The Battle of Midway,” that “there are few moments in American history in which the course of events tipped so suddenly and so dramatically as it did on June 4, 1942.”

Aircraft from the carriers Enterprise, Yorktown and Hornet sank four of Japan’s front-line carriers — the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu — northeast of Midway Atoll. Japan had forever lost the advantage in the Pacific.

Joint Base Pearl Harbor- Hickam stars throughout, with Building 55 on Ford Island standing in for Pacific Fleet headquarters. The street it fronts is strafed in the movie by low-flying Japa­nese planes.

An old Craftsman-style home at Hickam built in 1916 was used for some of the filming featuring Mandy Moore as pilot Dick Best’s wife, Ann.

“It felt like you were back in the early 1940s,” Moore said in the release. “Shooting at these historical locations, where families actually lived during World War II, brings a level of authenticity.” The movie is shot with an over-saturated, grainy effect that gives it a bit of sepia tone.

At sets in Montreal, detailed reproductions of SBD Dauntless and TBD Devastator aircraft were created, along with a multitude of other pieces, including reproductions of carrier flight decks.

“Midway” follows three storylines: pilots aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise; shoreside efforts of intelligence officer Layton and code breaker Cmdr. Joe Rochefort and Nimitz’s bold move to send his carriers to Midway; and the Japanese officer perspective, most notably that of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, architect of the Pearl Harbor attack.

That’s a lot to cram into the movie — which sets the stage early on by reaching back to the late 1930s and increasing tensions between Japan and the United States when Layton was a naval attache in Tokyo.

Japan is at a crossroads and eager to become a world power, Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) says to Layton in a private moment.

“Yet we get 80% of our oil from your country,” he tells Layton. “If that supply is threatened, it will force us into drastic measures.”

Focus on relationships is brief as the action swings between American and Japanese set pieces.

Nimitz, who would take over as Pacific Fleet commander after Pearl Harbor, is briefed in Washington about the Pearl Harbor attack.

“The situation in the Pacific is far worse than has been reported,” Nimitz is told.

“I don’t envy the new commander,” Nimitz says back, and then, after a pause, “It’s me, isn’t it?”

Layton has a key role in the intelligence coup that helped set a trap for the larger Japanese force at Midway. Station HYPO code breakers working in a windowless basement at Pearl Harbor nicknamed the “dungeon” had cracked a portion of the Japanese navy’s JN-25(b) code.

Leading the group was Rochefort, a brilliant mind known for his irreverence and sarcasm who eschewed formality and liked to wear a burgundy corduroy smoking jacket and slippers in the chilly basement.

Best is the main hero of the movie, a cocky, gum- chewing, daredevil pilot from New Jersey who early on decides he wants to practice landing his dive bomber on the Enterprise with the engine cut off.

The camera follows Best through his gun-sight as he plunges toward Japanese aircraft carriers with single-minded zeal as his nervous rear gunner calls out the altitude: “4,000! 3,000! 1,800! 1,600!”

Best is credited with bomb strikes on the Akagi and Hiryu. In the latter attack he intones, “This is for Pearl Harbor” as he drops a bomb while practically skimming the deck and momentarily dips a wingtip in the ocean as he pulls up from the steep dive.

The Navy gives “Midway” high marks for its overall historic accuracy.

While acknowledging that some events portrayed were not completely consistent with the record, “Midway” movie writers and producers “worked tirelessly with the Navy in script development and during production to keep the storyline consistent with the historic narrative,” U.S. Pacific Fleet said.

“I’m glad they did a movie about real heroes and not comic book heroes,” retired Rear Adm. Sam Cox, director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, said in a release. “Despite some of the ‘Hollywood’ aspects, this is still the most realistic movie about naval combat ever made and it does real credit to the courage and sacrifice of those who fought in the battle, on both sides.”

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