Filmmakers and stars give context to the incredible true stories of 'Midway'

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Patrick Willson and Dennis Quaid talk to film critic Ryan Painter about the history behind their new film "Midway." (Photo: Lionsgate)

Sitting across from director Roland Emmerich, the sun is bright in my eyes and the breeze coming off the ocean has tangled my hair, throwing it about my face. It’s early afternoon; already hot and I’m starting to sweat.

I knew very little beyond the basics of the Battle of Midway. I remember history class focusing on the losses of Pearl Harbor, skimming over any details of prior to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When I think of the Pacific Ocean Theater my mind tends to stray to Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line,” John Hersey’s novel “Hiroshima,” or the French film “Hiroshima, My Love.”

Of course, there is John Ford’s documentary about the Battle of Midway, but I only think of that in the moment because it appeared the night before in Emmerich’s film “Midway.

“I discovered this battle through a documentary. I immediately knew I wanted to make this as a film because it has so many different elements. It can show what like makes a big sea battle. And also, Naval intelligence part was a big, big, big, interest of [mine]. And then just the fact that dive bombing, I kind of said somebody has to do that and it has to be done as accurately as it happened.”

So began the unlikely passion project of Emmerich, a director known for apocalyptic films like “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow.” The distance between the massive destruction of those films isn’t as far removed from the Battle of Midway as you might initially think. Emmerich tells me that it is hard, even for him, to imagine that people actually went through the events that his film recreates.

Later in an air-conditioned room with a less attractive view, writer Wes Tooke explains his approach to writing the script.

“The challenge with this story is how do you make it feel fresh? We kind of all know a little bit about Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway and there's obviously been previous work done. What is the piece of it that is one relatable and makes it feel that this story is worth telling again?”

Tooke was drawn to the story of Richard “Dick” Best, a relatively uncelebrated pilot who “should have won the medal of honor as this little paragraph in a book.”

Tooke explains, “His story seems so emblematic to me of the courage and sacrifices, this remarkable group of people who are getting on a plane knowing that they weren't going to return and that the humanity of that story made this feel more than just a bunch of explosions.”

Elsewhere a lively Dennis Quaid (later we learn about his marriage proposal to girlfriend Laura Savoie) sits with fellow actor Patrick Wilson. I admit that I didn’t know as much as I should about Midway. He says I’m too young. Even Wilson is too young. Wilson, who is 46 years old, laughs as Quaid digs in.

“I grew up with stories of World War II around, because it was only 15 years back and [Midway] was my favorite battle in a way. It's just so fascinating, because it was the first victory that this country had after being attacked at Pearl Harbor.”

Quaid talks about the fear that Japan would attack the West Coast of the United States, insisting it was a very real danger.

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Wilson, adds that my lack of knowledge is also because there simply haven’t been nearly as many films made about the battles in the Pacific as there are about the European Front.

“I mean for the Navy, everybody in the Navy, this, this is the biggest battle. 100%. It’s their Normandy," said Wilson, discussing the historic importance of the stunning and strategic victory. "Midway's a tiny island. It was about a much broader, bigger picture."

Quaid adds, “And you know, they lost four carriers. It takes a lot to build a carrier back then and it severely damaged their ability to project power. And after that they had to, they had to concentrate on South, towards Australia. But [Midway] closed off them getting East. So, we were able to go up from the South and Island hop up to Japan, which finally won the war.”

As someone who has a love for history, I knew that World War II could have ended differently if Japan or Germany hadn’t made their share of tactical mistakes. That said, I don’t think I really understood exactly how much of an underdog the United States was in the fight against Japan. It’s something I bring up later when talking with Tooke about his screenplay.

"To me this is the greatest comeback story in military history. You have the darkest day in American history, which is Pearl Harbor. And then just six months later the seemingly impregnable Japanese fleet and loses the core of its carrier battle fleet," said Tooke, who discussed some of the questions that informed how he approached the story. "How did that happen? Who are the people who made it happen and what does are the remarkable, a series of both coincidences and hard work that allowed us to set this trap that changed the tide of the war?"

This helps to hammer home something that Emmerich said earlier in the day.

The world would have looked totally different if they would have not risked their lives and died for democracy.”

Different indeed.

“Midway” is now in theaters.