Why Audiences Love the World War II Movie ‘Midway’

"Midway" (Lionsgate)

"Midway" (out now on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital) is an unapologetically old-fashioned World War II movie that uses modern effects to recreate naval battles in a way never seen back in the golden age of Hollywood.

Director Roland Emmerich ("Independence Day") and screenwriter Wes Tooke collaborated to tell the story in a way that stayed as close to reality as possible, efficiently compressing an epic tale into just over two hours and telling the story with as much dialog drawn from real-life conversations as they could confirm.

Audiences loved "Midway," giving it a 92% positive score on Rotten Tomatoes, higher than the other high-profile 2019 war movie "1917" and higher than almost every nominee for Best Picture at the 2020 Academy Awards. Critics just didn't get it.

An impressive cast signed up to make an independent movie without big studio backing. Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Mandy Moore, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas and Darren Criss are among the big names who made this movie because they believed in the story. Younger performers like Ed Skrein, Luke Kleintank and Keean Johnson had breakthrough performances in roles that once would have been played by Robert Mithcum, Jimmy Stewart, Robert Ryan or Lee Marvin.

We spoke to screenwriter Wes Tooke before the theatrical release. He revisited the movie with us just before this week's home video release. Tooke is rumored to be working on the new "Game of Thrones" prequel "House of Dragon" for HBO, but he'll only confirm that he's working on something he can't discuss because of a non-disclosure agreement.

Related: How Screenwriter Wes Tooke Brought One of WWII's Most Complex Stories to the Screen

Tooke has devoted a huge chunk of time to "Midway." Just getting an old-fashioned WWII movie made is a huge accomplishment. Making one that (I predict) will become a weekend cable tv standard and a future Turner Classic movie is even more impressive.

Wes Tooke takes questions on the red carpet at a "Midway" screening in Hawaii. (Military.com)

Military.com: There's been a weird reception to "Midway." Audiences absolutely love the film and cheered all the way through both times I saw it in a theater. Critics seem to have missed the point entirely. How do you process something like that?

Tooke: There was a very stark contrast between the critical reception and what we were seeing in theaters. I watched it with a lot of live audiences and the audiences that showed up really seem to appreciate the movie. You end up wondering what accounts for it. And I think part of it is that critics are so attuned to look for cynical movies that play the audience. A lot of them read the movie as cynical and flag-waving when that was not at all our intention. A lot of people in the critical community didn't pick up on the fact that these stories are all true and these characters are real people.

The most gratifying response for me was from veterans. At the premiere, they had veterans from World War II and there's footage of them watching the movie. That was incredibly emotional for me because they seemed to see something onscreen that reflected their experience and were reacting to it.

Related: How Movie Magic Recreated the Battle of Midway

That was probably the most rewarding moment of working on this film. I had the opportunity to talk to a few of them afterwards about what their experience had been during the war and also why the movie had brought up some emotions.

Beyond that there's a huge, great reception from current veterans. People have asked me why I wanted to tell this story. I've always had an interest in military history but part of the answer to me is that we seem unwilling to talk about the experience of current veterans. The movies that have come out about our wars abroad for the last 18 years haven't tended to get a really large reception.

There is something hopeful in the universal in the experience of "Midway" for a veteran who was in Iraq and Afghanistan as they watch the sacrifice in this movie. Hopefully, that relates in some ways to their experience. The fact that those people did show up and did seem to appreciate the film mattered a lot to me.

Miltary.com: A lot of those films about our current wars tend to emphasize how much damage was done to the people who fought them. At the premiere, we both met these older guys who went on to very fulfilling and productive lives after the war. You wonder where those stories are about modern veterans. I think a lot of folks responded to a movie where the men are portrayed as having a positive experience when they do their duty.

Tooke: That's a very smart point. I think that the Dick Best story is emblematic of that. There's a guy who went through hell and ended up spending 18 months in a hospital after the war, but then went on to become the chief of security for the Rand Corp and had obviously a full life here in Santa Monica. There was an opportunity coming out of that war with the economic boom for people to totally reinvent themselves.

Military.com: I think we're both in a generation where people who could get an education were actively encouraged not to serve. What attracts someone like you to this story in the first place?

Tooke: I came of age after the end of the Cold War, but before 9/11. People were talking about a peace dividend and what would the role of the military be going forward. I lived in San Francisco after college and the city was hit by all those base closures in 1994. The Bay Area went from having some of the largest military bases and installations on the West Coast to suddenly having hardly any military presence at all. And I just, I think we're kind of reflective of American life. For a few years there, it seemed like there was no really logical reason to join the military.

Suddenly, 9/11 happened and I was in my mid-to-late twenties and I had a friend who joined. If I had been in college when it happened, there probably would've been a different atmosphere around doing ROTC or joining the military. There's definitely a generational schism. People younger than I am and would have thought about the military in a different way.

Military.com: "Midway" and "1917" didn't quite get the same reactions from mainstream movie critics. But, to me, "Midway" is the kind of movie that's going to play on Saturday afternoons on TNT for the next 25 years, and and it'll be shown on whatever the next generation equivalent of Turner Classic Movies happens to be in 35 years.

Tooke: "1917" had two things going for it. People view Sam Mendes as an auteur director who's doing something very specific in the film with its single shot and made it feel like he was trying to do something "literary" and cinematic. That made for an easy and convenient narrative around the film.

I think World War I stories play more to the current tone about the military, which is, you know, war is a waste and then an evil. It's just a kind of postmodern view of war that has certainly been adopted on the coasts by people who, generally speaking, are not currently fighting a war or engaging with it.

Related: Take a First Look at This Fall's WWII Epic 'Midway'

Our movie can, probably can, feel flag-waving from one perspective. From another, it's really trying to be about the experiences of people who go through a war. And yeah, they're the ones who win that battle, but there's a real cost to that victory. That's a cost borne now by people in modern American life who don't live in these coastal cities where a lot of the critics are based. Maybe that was part of it.

Military.com: A lot of my friends who've seen combat as current active duty or veterans really thought that "1917" celebrated the role of the grunt in war in a way that few movies ever have. But "Midway" also has some of the same subtlety about the cost and waste of war as well.

It's not like the two movies are completely different things in that sense. "Midway" is a lot more subtle than maybe some people gave it credit for, and "1917" is certainly not the anti-war movie that maybe some of the audience thought they were seeing.

Tooke: One critic picked out a line of dialogue that they particularly hated. You want to write in and say, "Well, that line of dialogue is exactly what that person actually said. That's why it's in the movie. We went in and did the research and we found that this guy said it and we had multiple sources that he said it and that's why we put it in."

But you can't really do that. Ultimately, you can't take it personally. For me, it was the experience of the movie coming out and I feel like the people who are meant to find the movie found it and appreciate the movie and want to watch it again.

Maybe that's the real test. People who have served and know something about these events, whether because they're historians or because they're former active duty, who see something that is recognizable enough in a piece of art that it means something to their life and they want to watch it again. If you can do that, then I think the movie or any piece of art is successful.

The one thing that I do react against is that claim that this movie was cynical. It was a long, long battle to write it and then to get it made. "Midway" was not made by a studio. It was a lot of people putting their own money on the line. This wasn't just some corporation writing a check and it was a director who could have done a lot of other things. He could have made another movie for a studio about aliens and space or a superhero movie.

Instead, this was a story that mattered to him and he put himself on the line, not just his time, but also his money and his reputation. Roland called in a lot of favors to get it done. No one wants to make a $120 million war movie. They just don't. They're terrified of it.

Getting "Midway" made took a lot of people taking a big swing and a big risk. They did it because they cared about the story and they thought that there was an opportunity to tell it in a way that hadn't been told before.

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