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Daily Drip

“Midway” Relegates Real Chinese Story in Favor of CGI and C-List Stars

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After writing 2,000 words about China and the movie Midway last week, it was fun to learn that Kenny Leu and the Chinese cast are on screen for about 85 seconds of a two-hour movie. Not that this was unusual for the film. You know you’re in trouble when watching a movie about the Battle of Midway and Mandy Moore’s character has more screen time than the guy playing Admiral Yamamoto. There’s also a slow dance scene at the officer’s club on Hawaii (Cocktails! Jazz! The ’40s!) that somehow takes up more time than the entire Doolittle Raid.

The CGI is fantastic, and the battle scenes are what you are paying for. I’m not a military historian, and World War II is far from my specialty, so I’m not going to (completely) nitpick the planes, ships, and order of battle. That said, there are whole parts of the Midway tale excised for what I assume are storyline reasons. Several battles are condensed and events simplified no doubt to keep the plot coherent for folks who haven’t spent the last two weeks reading about naval strategy in the Pacific Theater of World War II.

The movie also combines or eliminates major historical figures to keep the budget down on an already bloated C-List Cast. (Hey, look! It’s Mandy Moore. Again. And Woody, from Cheers! The bad guy from Aquaman! The bad guy from one of the Fast & Furious movies! And, um… the least interesting gay guy from Glee? Plus: A bonus Jonas.)*

Related:

The Incredible True Story Behind “Midway”: An Audacious American WWII Raid and the Price China Paid

There’s a significant plot point — which I won’t spoil — involving the location of the Aircraft Carrier Yorktown that deviates substantially from the historical record. I was happy to see one crucial scene — involving some not-so-subtle code subterfuge by US Navy Intelligence — make the cut. It’s one of my top-ten favorite historical ruses and I was a little too excited watching it play out on screen. Still, did the filmmakers really need to give us five close-up shots of Dennis Quaid’s neck rash while relegating the Battle of Coral Sea to what looked like a 35-second screenshot lifted from Civilization V?

Let’s also talk about how the Chinese get shafted, again… kind of like what happened in the real Doolittle Raid. There are some shots of Aaron Eckhart flashing his trademark “I’m-getting-paid-in-advance-for-this-shit” expression while running with Chinese villagers, a couple of explosions, and minimal dialogue. The whole thing looks like it was shot by the Second Unit while the main cast took a break on Oahu.

I understand why the Chinese scenes are in there. With backing from companies like Starlight Entertainment Group and Shanghai Ruyi Entertainment (plus the requisite Hollywood pander to Chinese audiences) it made sense to include something about China. In fact, the terrible dialogue and wooden acting in the first few scenes felt like they were lifted straight out of a CCTV war drama (don’t worry, the acting gets — marginally — better).

There is a real and important story to be told about how Chinese civilians and soldiers assisted US airmen after the Doolittle Raid and about how it was Chinese civilians who bore the brunt of the Japanese revenge for that raid. That story deserves more than a glorified cameo, a little soft core torture porn, and an epilogue note.**

Finally, consider Roland Emmerich. It’s safe to that between his 1998 craptastic attempt to re-boot Godzilla and now Midway, old Roland’s not going to be invited to many film festivals in Japan.

If you like loud CGI or are a history nerd, like me, looking for a bigger budget version of the History Channel filmed for the big screen then you’ll probably like Midway.

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*I know he’s an actual historical figure and all, but this movie also has a lead named “Dick Best” and is somehow not a pornographic film.

** Minor spoiler alert: The end of the movie implies Zhu Xuesan, Kenny Leu’s character, may have been killed for assisting Doolittle after Japanese soldiers find a lighter the American gave to Zhu as a present. The Doolittle raiders did hand out a lot of small gifts, and those gifts were used by Japanese soldiers as proof of “colluding with the enemy.” This in turn led to horribly violent reprisals by Japanese troops against individuals and whole villages, but the real Zhu Xuesan survived the war. Zhu even reunited many decades later with some of the raiders he helped rescue.

Jeremiah Jenne
    Jeremiah Jenne is a writer, educator, and historian based in Beijing.
    china.wav LA

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