I enjoyed this week’s top movie at the box office, Midway. Fortunately, in this case (because I think advance knowledge enhances, rather than diminishes, the cinematic experience), I didn’t know much about this movie in advance. 

When I saw that Midway is directed by Roland Emmerich, a German-born moviemaker whose Godzilla (1998), Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow are among the most bombastic movies I’ve seen, I felt a cringe, though because I’d forgotten his forgettable films, I didn’t credit the cause. When I realized who he is, and learned that he also directed the unnecessarily bloody martyr-themed The Patriot, I cringed again. And, frankly, Midway begins as a loud, mammoth-scale behemoth that vibrates and shudders the audience in their seats.

Except for a few significant problems, Midway gets better fast and becomes an absorbing, old-fashioned American war movie. With one crucial omission, each plot point in the structure is properly planned, earned and executed, starting with the Japanese sneak attack on America (Japan initiated the use of force against America at Pearl Harbor, slaughtering thousands of Americans).

An innocent young American atheist or secularist sailor questioning a church service in progress on the deck of the USS Arizona swiftly finds himself fighting for life with his superior while “the Japs” (as the enemy were called in World War 2, a fact which is not treated with apology) bomb and gun down Americans everywhere in Honolulu. It’s a massacre. 

This is the predicate for President Roosevelt’s stirring speech to rally the young nation to war, which some believe there’s evidence he knew about in advance. Then, comes a good exposition, which is extremely rare in Hollywood, with a string of leading male characters as top Naval brass, pilots and sailors, wives and Japanese sailors.

The timeline moves steadily and not too fast. This means that, for the first time in a major Hollywood movie in decades, the men who fought the war, who, appropriately for the picture’s Veterans Day weekend release, are both based on real sailors, pilots and officers and portrayed largely without historical revisionism, come off as real, developed, admirable characters. Midway in this sense puts the audience on the edge of their seats. Everyone in the theater, including those I suspect are real American vets, pilots, soldiers and sailors and their children and wives, was very invested in the characters and story.

The battle of Midway cannot be overestimated in turning the war in the Pacific toward the Americans and Midway depicts this hard-fought, deadly, epic battle with top production values. It doesn’t look fake like the Marvel movies. It looks more realistic. Whether Nimitz (Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards…) is ruminating about enemy movements at sea, musicians are pressed into service as codebreakers listening to Zenith radios or the only intelligence officer (Patrick Wilson, Angels in America) to forewarn about the Japs’ attack is nearly wrecked with tension and anxiety about the accuracy of his projections, Midway always keeps the action rooted in the drama of men’s lives at stake.

Screenwriter Wes Tooke gets certain details, such as America’s minisule and poorly prepared and equipped navy right. By the time the battle gets underway, with toe-tingling dive bombing and dogfighting and impossible aeronautic climbs defying the Navy pilots’ biological needs, every character, from Bruno the aircraft carrier crewman (Nick Jonas) to an arrogant American named Best (Ed Skrein, Deadpool) and Mrs. Best (Mandy Moore, This Is Us), is fully enlisted in the dramatic action. Look for Dennis Quaid (A Dog’s Purpose) as an aircraft carrier commander who makes a pivotal judgment, Darren Criss (The Assassination of Gianni Versace) as a pilot and Etsushi Toyokawa as Yamamoto (who said after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor that Imperial Japan had “awakened a sleeping giant”). Others include Luke Evans as a naval leader and others you may recognize as tailgunners, war widows and coders. Aaron Eckhart (Sully) appears as Jimmy Doolittle, who dared to bomb Tokyo when America desperately needed him to bomb Japan and ran out of fuel with his crewmen, crashed in enemy territory and tried to escape the bastards. Midway is an American epic that accounts for almost every important aspect of the Pacific theater.

Unfortunately, there are exceptions. While this may be Roland Emmerich’s best movie since Stargate (1994) and he does capture the sense of shock that the Japanese experienced at the depth and magnitude of American resilience and resolve, the director and writer fail to mention or refer to Douglas MacArthur, which strikes me as a key oversight. Worse, they evade the central, driving tenet of Japan’s dominant religion, Shintoism: self-sacrifice. A single scene of a kamikaze diving into an American ship is matched by an American pilot doing the same to a Japanese ship and a scene actually suggests that the Japanese war command discouraged sacrifice.

The opposite is true. The whole country, culture and deeply held belief system of Japan, down to every man, woman and child, was the total moral duty to sacrifice for the sake of one’s race, religion and state; with the emperor and empire being both state and religion. Also, the movie’s apparently been made with assistance from some shell branch of Communist China, so scenes in Japanese-occupied China emphasize Chinese suffering to the detriment of the Doolittle raid subplot.

Midway does, however, depict Japan’s barbarism which is absolutely crucial to any movie about World War 2’s Pacific theater. Also, the conflict between Japanese duty versus American desire to live is made clear. Though I would not have dedicated a war-themed movie to those who fought and died from both countries, some, especially Americans who fought, might see this as a magnanimous gesture.

In any case, Midway earns its excitement and does mostly right by the brave Americans who broke the code, planned, out-thought, outfought and crushed the enemy against all reasonable expectations and those who loved them. The best performances belong to Skrein as Best, Wilson, black-haired Moore struggling to remain as brave and composed as her husband, Quaid, Criss and, Nick Jonas in an important role showing that he’s a natural actor.

Everyone on cast and crew does good work on Midway, however. It’s a thrilling, intense two hours about the victory that stopped Japan from bombing California and invading the United States — the empire had devised plans to march to Chicago — buying America time to crush the enemy without equivocation and win the war. Which, thanks to the Americans of Midway, we did.