Midway – Cinematic spectacle firmly based in historical facts

Director Roland Emmerich is a master of cinematic spectacle, with a legendary career ranging from science fiction blockbusters, like Independence Day, to historical epics, like The Patriot. In addition to his signature scope and scale, the acclaimed filmmaker’s work is always grounded in relatable themes, fully realized characters, and the emotional power of hope. Midway continues in this proud tradition and is a true passion project almost twenty years in the making.

“I’m thrilled that we had the opportunity to tell this story because young people today don’t always know the stories about those who fought for their freedom,” he says.

Roland Emmerich

“I think that without the generation who fought in WWII, our world would be very different. There was a lot of hardship and a lot of people died for it, but they died for a reason. There was a real fight against fascism going on in the world. Today we sometimes forget about these things, but movies can serve as a vivid monument to them.  We wanted to honour that fight and those who gave so much.”

Midway centers on the Battle of Midway, a clash between the American fleet and Imperial Japanese Navy, which marked a turning point in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

The film, based on the real-life events of this heroic feat, tells the story of the leaders and soldiers who used their instincts, fortitude and bravery to overcome the odds. It’s a real-life story of brotherhood and camaraderie, and the determination and sacrifice of real-life military heroes, to secure an American victory.

Having been decimated by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor only six months earlier, the U.S. Navy was desperately outmanned and outgunned heading into the Battle of Midway.  The U.S. military held on to one great advantage: its intelligence operations and collective grit, were strongly underestimated.

Midway takes audiences deep inside the complex decision making of the United States’ tactical command – and then straps them inside a bomber cockpit to experience the most visceral on-screen telling, of the greatest battle in U.S. warfare history.

Emmerich envisioned a fresh look at this pivotal battle told for a new generation, with characters who share powerful bonds.

“Our film follows three storylines, depicting three interwoven perspectives on the battle,” Emmerich continues. “One is the pilots aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, mainly Dick Best, Clarence Dickinson, and Bruno Gaido, who are historical figures. A second storyline follows the critical work of Naval Intelligence officer Edwin Layton; a code breaker, Joseph Rochefort; and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz in Pearl

Harbor. The third storyline centres on the Japanese officers, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, and Japanese officers Tamon Yamaguchi, Kaku Tomeo and Chūichi Nagumo, who are historical characters, as well.”

“The Battle of Midway is one of the most fascinating stories of World War II,” says producer Harald Kloser, who has been working with Emmerich for over 15 years. “Midway is the event that transformed the war in the Pacific, basically preserving democracy and freedom in the U.S. and the Western world. This was the day freedom was won.”

Executive Producer Marco Shepherd attests that Emmerich has wanted to make Midway for almost two decades. “Roland has been fascinated by the stories behind the men who sacrificed, and risked their lives to fight in this incredible naval battle,” he says. 

Screenwriter Wes Tooke first discussed Midway with Emmerich while they were collaborating on another project. “Roland mentioned that he’d always been fascinated with the Battle of Midway, which intrigued me because my grandfather had served in the Navy,” explains Tooke. “The moment he said that I wanted to be involved. I’ve been fascinated since childhood with military history, in particular WWII and the Pacific Theater. The scope of it and the changes that happened over the six-month period between Pearl Harbor and Midway are some of the most compelling events in history. I knew Roland could tell that story in a way it’s never been told.”  

The courage of the young men rising to the challenges of war truly impressed the filmmakers. “What really moved me was the willingness, and the spirit, behind those who suffered from the attack on Pearl Harbor,” says Shepherd. “This battle has inspired many other stories, particularly in science fiction, for which Roland is celebrated. You can even see allusions of Independence Day in this film. But most of all, it’s about the fight against an idea that was starting to consume the world at the time.”

Dennis Quaid, who plays Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, was certain that Emmerich, who had directed him in the blockbuster film The Day After Tomorrow, could deliver the goods on all fronts. “Roland shows audiences what they have never seen before, and does it in a way that makes you believe,” he points out. “I knew he would bring the same movie magic and his particular style and mastery to Midway, which is an amazing story.”

Unlike science fiction, however, Midway is firmly based on historical facts, which reveal themselves throughout the course of the film. One of the things that made telling this story so compelling for Tooke is how new insight has allowed us to see the battle more clearly and completely. 

“There was a huge amount of Japanese military history that had not made it over to the U.S.,” he explains. “When we began this project, I was fascinated to discover this wave of new scholarship, where the Japanese side of the story was finally being told in English in a way that it had never been before.”

“Roland insisted that we make every effort to make all aspects of the film, as accurate as possible,” Tooke continues. “Everything that happens onscreen, in terms of historical events, is factual and in chronological order. It begins in December 1941 with Pearl Harbor and ends in June with the Battle of Midway. It is the most dramatic six months in the history of warfare.”

The film’s themes of loyalty, brotherhood, sacrifice and bravery transcend generations.

While Roland Emmerich is renowned for the scale and spectacle he has brought to the big screen, he has also always delivered a relatable emotion to the stories he’s telling. “Roland captures both the huge scope and devastation of these battles while revealing the human story underneath it all,” says screenwriter Wes Tooke. “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,”

Tooke continues. “This picture uses those bigger-than-life elements in a way we don’t see that often anymore.”

“You have to see this in cinemas, and feel the audience’s energy and the bigger-than-life imagery and sounds,” says Aaron Eckhart, who plays the leader of an Army bomber squadron. “It’s all meant to be experienced on the big screen.”

 “Midway comes to life in a way you’ve never seen before because there’s someone really brilliant steering the ship: our director, Roland,” enthuses Jonas. “I’m excited as a fan to watch it and be blown away in my seat at the theatre.”

“This movie is timely and important because we’re telling true stories of real heroes, of men whose heroic stories have often been forgotten,” Mandy Moore says. “I love that by being a part of this movie we’re honouring the Greatest Generation and are passing on this piece of history to the next generation. Midway will transport audiences back in time.”

Dennis Quaid also thinks the story holds relevance today about sacrificing for the greater good. “Everyone abroad and at home gave so much,” he notes. “You couldn’t get a rubber tire for your bicycle or buy gas because it was all going to the war effort. Everybody pitched in for something bigger than themselves. It’s a lesson for all of us about uniting in spite of our differences.” 

Decades after these historic events unfolded, Emmerich affirms these stories remain important today. “It shows an America that was not a superpower, and which had just come out of the Great Depression. The country initially tried to stay out of the war but Pearl Harbor changed all that. It was a simpler time, but it also was a time where you had to put your life in danger for ideals.”

 “This film isn’t just a tribute to the actions of the people who served in the Second World War, but also to the people who continue to put their lives on the line defending us,” Tooke says. “It looks back at a moment where there was a sense of patriotism and national unity, an understanding of our shared common values, why that’s special, and how, when we pull together, we can achieve something remarkable in the face of impossible odds.”

Roland Emmerich during the filming of Midway

The journey to bring Midway to the big screen began in November 2016

“It started with Roland daydreaming about this film, telling stories, and talking about what movie he’d like to make,” says production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli, a frequent Emmerich collaborator. “I visited Montreal with him over the course of several different phases of the project to talk with researchers, my art department, and my set decorating teams to start to figure out what it would take to bring the project to life. Then, Roland pulled the trigger, and said, ‘We’re making this movie.’ In about ten weeks, we had all the reference material and research in order, and the set designers started to work.”

In addition, Petruccelli travelled to the Naval Archives and National Archives, in Washington, D.C., to get as much data, architectural cartography, and imagery as possible. “That started a process of research for my team, which learned every detail needed to build a battleship and an aircraft carrier as authentically as possible,” he says.

Another key resource was the U.S. Government itself. “If you do a movie that involves the military, the first thing you do is ring up the press department of the Department of Defense,” producer Harald Kloser continues. “They liked our script because it tells a compelling story about a historic battle. We received a lot of support and were allowed to shoot in locations that were otherwise unavailable, like the submarine USS Bowfin, as well as facilities on Ford Island and Pearl Harbor. We’re very thankful to the DoD.”

 “We were lucky enough to shoot at Hawaii’s Hickam Air Force Base, in an old abandoned home that they brought to life again, as well as Ford Island,” confirms Mandy Moore. “It felt like you were back in the early 1940s. Shooting at these historical locations, where families actually lived during WWII, brings a level of authenticity. It helps you feel grounded, and puts yourself in your character’s shoes.” 

The filmmakers couldn’t shoot entirely on location in Hawaii for logistical reasons, but they made sure that the sets on the soundstage and on location in Montreal were as authentic as possible. “If you shoot a period film it means you have to either find locations that are period or build them,” Kloser explains. “We had to build many of the sets because they don’t exist anymore or were too far away to move everybody there.”

“All of these spaces are exact reproductions of what existed,” adds Petruccelli. “It’s actually the scale of the mess cabin on the Hornet, Enterprise, and Yorktown. The flight deck is an exact, inch-per-inch relative reproduction. We had to reduce the size of the aircraft carrier deck by a few feet because we couldn’t fit it on the stage, but the planes and carrier are exact matches.”

Two different kinds of American warplanes were also recreated for Midway: the SBD Dauntless and the TBD Devastator. “The TBD doesn’t exist anywhere else. We have the only one on the planet right now, located outside Truk Lagoon,” says Petruccelli. “We ended up looking through blogs and going through models and any text or work we could find, to learn how this plane was actually built. We found the ribbing of it and built it to the T. It’s an honour to have it and it’s a museum-quality build.”