This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
After the American naval victory at Midway, the aircraft carrier Enterprise returns to Honolulu. Stirring music plays. Civilians greet the returning heroes. The wounded are taken ashore. Henry Fonda, as Adm. Nimitz, turns to Hal Holbrook, as Cmdr. Rochefort, and asks: "Which was it? Were we better than the Japanese -- or just luckier?" It's a good question. At this point the movie "Midway" is nearly over, and nobody in the audience has a clue to the answer.
Midway was one of history's greatest battles at sea, we know (or, if we didn't, there's a Winston Churchill quotation to remind us). It was a decisive turning point in the Pacific: At one blow, the Japanese Navy lost its great superiority. If "Midway" had been filmed 25 or 30 years ago, during the heyday of simpleminded war movies, the appropriate patriotic conclusions would have been drawn and the movie would have been over.
But this "Midway" was filmed for 1976, and so cannot be as straightforward. Instead of bugle calls, blood and guts and jingoism, we get the battle as a tactical game. American and Japanese strategists push model ships around their war maps until we feel we know the Pacific as intimately as they do. Everything's very businesslike, calm, and determined. But then, when the actual battle starts, we quickly lose our orientation. Footage of the actors is intercut unconvincingly with newsreel and documentary footage.
The movie can be experienced as pure spectacle, I suppose, if we give up all hopes of making sense of it. Bombs explode and planes crash and the theater shakes with the magic of Sensurround. But there's no real directorial intelligence at hand to weave the special effects into the story, to clarify the outlines of the battle and to convincingly account for the unexpected American victory.