Review of the Film Midway (2019)

Midway

I always cringe when Hollywood says they are going to do a historical war movie. Midway was a good effort, though it glossed over many things that made the battle so remarkable.

First off, I watched the old movie Midway prior to going.  I liked some of it, but hated the mix of Tora, Tora, Tora footage in with actual war documentary footage.  The old movie had flaws all on its own but it was my measuring stick for the new film.

The movie tries hard to cover the battle and the preceding events that led up to it without drifting into the love story that was so horrible with Pearl Harbor.  The attack on December 7th is really outstanding in terms of the CGI.  I loved watching the Doolittle raid take off, but it wanders a little too far into that mission as well. In fact, from a plot standpoint, the film struggles to stay on-course to tell the story of Midway, rather than the first seven months of the war as a whole.

As to the battle itself, the movie does a fair job…not great, but not Battle of the Bulge bad.  I liked what was in the movie.  My biggest complaint were the things that were omitted that should have been in the movie.

First up, the miracle of the USS Yorktown.  The film touches on it, but the fact that the Yorktown is repaired in two days after the Battle of the Coral Sea is important.  Also critical is that the Japanese hit the carrier, setting her ablaze during the battle of Midway, but the ship recovered.  The Japanese attacked it again the next day, eventually leading to her being scuttled.  It deceived them into thinking they had sunk two different carriers and is important.  In the movie, we see the Japanese pilots getting ready to attack and the next scene is the Yorktown ablaze.  It was, to me, the biggest blown opportunity of the film.  It was either bad writing or crappy editing.

The air attacks from Midway were terrifying to the Japanese but fail, in both renditions of this film, to cover them accurately.  The PBY’s launching torpedoes at the Japanese and the slaughter of the Brewster Buffalos were important.

The film also misrepresented the intelligence ploy of transmitting that the water purification plant at Midway (AF) was down.  This act set the stage for the battle, but it is glossed over inaccurately in the movie…for apparently no reason.

Also the faulty arming switches on the dive bombers was important…more important that the fictionalized story that the movie gives between Best and McClusky that attempts to be the heart and soul of this movie. This technological debacle makes the miraculous victory at Midway even greater, but it is ignored.

Also Hollywood, at the end of the movie when you indicate the honors bestowed on the real-life heroes, you said they “won” their medals.  You win Participation Trophies – not military honors.  I heard a vet in the theater bemoan this point so it isn’t lost on me.

The movie seemed to rely too much on special effects (which were great) rather than on the substance of the battle itself.

The dialogue leaves you wanting more.  Nimitz saying, “We won,” was just, well, cheap writing. Nothing was done to frame the victory and what it ultimately meant.  I also wish they had focused on a plot.  Delving into the Doolittle Raid so deeply, while nice, distracted from the battle of Midway.

Having bitched about the inaccuracies, I DID enjoy the movie.  It’s not up there with A Bridge Too Far, but it holds its own and doesn’t suck like Pearl Harbor.  I’ll be purchasing it for home viewing and will permanently shelve my copy of the 1970’s Midway.   That, on its own, is not a ringing endorsement.

Review of Amerika – Alternate History by Paul Lally

Amerika
Nazi’s, A-Bombs, and General Patton.  What could go wrong?

Spoilers below!  This was a novel that seemed to have a lot of potential but seemed to fail on delivery for me.  It’s a “Nazi’s got the A-bomb” book, with some neat twists.  The Germans attacked on the day after Pearl Harbor, nuking Washington DC and New York.  America goes all neutral on Germany’s ass.  The German’s press the war on, nuking other capital cities around the globe but get bogged down in a war deep in Russia.

The story centers on a pilot of a rundown flying boat living under the heels of Nazi dominated neutrality.  America however is not entirely on the ropes.  General George S. Patton and the Sons of Liberty are planning to send the Nazi’s reeling with a diabolical plan of their own involving using a captured German nuke on our own reactors to prevent the Nazi’s from getting our plutonium – since they have exhausted their own supply.

Hilarity ensues.

Generally I am all over a book with Patton in it.  I’m a sucker for Patton, having read many of his biographies.  Patton’s role in the book proved to be fairly limited however.

I had two issues with the book.  One, it seemed to waste a lot of text on flying airplanes.  It was buried in pointless technical dialogue that didn’t help the story along.

Second, the plot itself was clumsy.  Why bomb our own source of plutonium production?  America is a big place and hiding our stash would have been easier and faster than nuking t.  It just felt forced to me, and a bit unnecessary.  Also, we have Nazi troops landing in Washington and Louisiana, clearly violating our neutrality, but it never even seems to make the press or airwaves in the book.

The one thing I did love about the plot is it’s like watching a 1940’s film akin to Casablanca.  The dialogue is good (when it’s not about flying a plane) and it has that 1940’s spy film feel to it.  The characters come right out of central casting and each has a good arc in the story.  Paul Lally made me like some characters and hate the bad guys.

The writing is solid too. Mr. Lally is clearly talented and his prose are crisp.  He weaves in dialogue from the 1940’s masterfully.  I only wish I had subscribed to his plot more than I did.  I give this book three and a half stars out of five.  It’s fair, if you want to read another Nazi bomb story.

Book Review – Storm Front – Alternate History

Storm Front
Not your typical “Nazi’s win WWII” alternate history – which is refreshing on its own. 

Storm Front (Book I of the Twilight of the Gods) is set in 1985 in a world where Germany was not destroyed as a result of WWII.  I phrased that carefully.  This isn’t your typical alternate history fare, where Germany won the war.  Yes, they defeated Russia and France, but they entered a Cold War era with Britain and the US.  On the whole, that makes for a fascinating set of perspectives of what life would be like in 1985 in the Reich.

Many books in the genre use war as the tapestry to tell the story.  Storm Front doesn’t do that, not directly anyway. There’s a war, in South Africa, a mirror to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, but we are not sucked into it as part of the storytelling – something I was surprised by (in a positive way).  Storm Front takes a higher road, going along the route of Man in a High Castle.

Ultimately this is the story of characters who become unlikely catalysts in a revolution.  The analogy to Poland is interesting but the differences are only on the surface.  Author Christopher Nuttall isn’t afraid to draw connections to real world events but often takes them in his own creative direction.  Some of the characters are intricate in terms of their motivations – which I like.

This was my first taste of his writing and I have to admit, I’m going to dive into the second book when it comes out.  He plays homage to Harry Turtledove in the book, which seemed a little corny while at the same time was perfectly acceptable.  Even as a historian, I struggle with the the German ranks, but his only other choice was to do a Hogan’s Heroes approach to the dialogue and that would have sucked.  Kudos for making the right call Mr. Nuttall.

What was nice was that this first book had a logical ending point – without leaving me hanging without some degree of closure on key plot lines.  At the same time Nuttall has done a great job of setting up the next book in the series.

I give Storm Front 4.5 stars…not your typical fare for alternate history, which gives it some refreshing appeal.

Review – Germanica – Robert Conroy’s Alternate History

Germanica
What if the war continued after Hitler’s death?

We lost Robert Conroy a while back and his voice in the alternate history genre is missed.  The story concept is fairly intriguing – what if Germany fell back to the mythical Alpine Redoubt (Germanica) in WWII rather than surrender.  On its own, that is interesting.  You have the last bits of the Third Reich hunkering down and waging a war of attrition against the Allies, which is a good premise to build off of.  It is a good piece of alternate history, not stunningly great, but not bad.

This is an ensemble story with a cast of characters to give you a lot of perspective as to the conflict.  We have a seasoned officer, a grizzled sergeant, a pilot turned OSS spy, a holocaust survivor and a few others designed to round out views of this extended war.  There’s a few that stand out.  The military characters were the strongest of the mix.  You find yourself unsympathetic to the grizzled German troopers that are fleeing into Germanica which I think is a missed opportunity.

In this history, Joseph Goebbels leads the rag-tag remains of the Germany military into the alpine state dubbed Germanica.  With him are the German scientists working on the atomic bomb, because everyone writing an alternate history on Germany can’t resist the concept of a Nazi A-Bomb.  Fortunately Conroy doesn’t fall back on this as his key lever to the plot.  In fact, I found his insertion of it rather refreshing since other authors have covered this ground already.

President Truman struggles with an America that is weary of the war which is just what the Germans are hoping for.  I found that less-than-plausible, though Conroy introduces some throwaway characters to justify it.  The Swiss are less-than-neutral in this effort, indirectly aiding the Nazi’s.

The only main supporting player I struggled with was Dulles, the spymaster of the OSS in Switzerland.  I wrote about the OSS in my book, Lost Eagles.  Having researched Dulles at the National Archives II, I can say the way he was portrayed, personally staging missions, just didn’t seem right.

The ending was okay, but it could have been a much more powerful with the proper set-up.  I found myself wanting something more dramatic at the end, payout for my reading.

Germanica is a good read.  It’s not Conroy’s best, but it was incredibly pleasing to finally pick this book up and devour it.  It served to remind me just how much we’ve lost in the alternate writing community of authors.  I give it three-and-a-half stars out of five.  A solid read – worth adding to your list.

Anniversary of the Doolittle Raid

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The Doolittle Raiders on the Deck of the Hornet

This weekend had a few anniversaries tied to it, including the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City.  With all of the talk of domestic terrorism in the headlines as of late, I think it is better to look at another anniversary instead – that of the Doolittle Raid on Japan which happened on April 18.  Most of us cannot comprehend the importance of this event.  It was not a stunning military success, the damage that the raid inflicted was noticeable but not devastating to Japan.  What it DID accomplish was a much needed boost to American morale while proving to the Japanese that their home island was subject to enemy attack.

For those not familiar with the raid, it took place in 1942, when there was a lot of questioning as to whether America was going to win the war in the Pacific.  It is hard for us to comprehend that in retrospect, but up until this point the US had been on the receiving end of a can of Japanese whoop-ass.  America had lost a significant portion of the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor.  The Philippines had fallen, resulting in a devastating surrender of American forces and triggering the horrific Bataan Death March of the survivors.  Wake Island had fallen too, a loss for the USMC and the Navy.  Midway was still months away when the Doolittle Raid took place.  While America had a resolve to fight the Empire of Japan, it had not demonstrated this resolve with victories.

Navy Captain Francis Low came up with the idea, the use of twin-engine B-26 Army Air Force bombers being launched off of a carrier, striking at Japan.  The plan was daring and pushed the limits of 1942 technology, requiring the bombers to be outfitted with additional fuel tanks and taking off from an aircraft carrier that they could not return to.  The crews were to fly to Japan, attack, then continue on to China and hopefully land there.  Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle was to command the mission.

The attack was to be launched from the carrier USS Hornet.  Sixteen of the large bombers were secretly loaded on the Hornet, their crews having trained for weeks for the strike.  The raid required secrecy in order to succeed.  The Hornet sailed deep into enemy waters.  A Japanese picket boat spotted the task force before it was in position.  Doolittle was faced with a difficult choice.  Take off earlier than planned and most likely run out of fuel before landing in China, or abort the strike altogether.

He opted for audacity.

The planes launched.  Their takeoffs were filmed and are available on the net.  Watching them is incredible even to this day.  Sixteen aircraft lumbered off towards Tokyo and other targets, not knowing what they might be facing in terms of defenses.  There were no escort aircraft, it physically was not feasible.  The Navy task force turned and departed and Doolittle and his men plowed on into the great unknown.  It was as close to a suicide mission as could be conceived at the time.

The raiders came over Japan and found it stunningly unprepared.  They bombed ten military and industrial targets in Tokyo, two in Yokohama and one each in Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka.  Only one of the aircraft was damaged by anti-aircraft fire, their attack was so stunning.  They flew across Japan and the sea to China (with one landing in Russia).  The planes crashed, the crews bailing out often over Japanese occupied territory.

The raiders suffered casualties as a result of the raid.  Three were killed in action eight were made POWs: three were executed by the Japanese, one died in captivity, and four were repatriated.

Doolittle himself survived.  He assumed he would be court-martialed for the mission.  In his eyes, it was a disaster.  What he didn’t know was that the raid had accomplished more than just damage to the Japanese (confirmed by their radio broadcasts).  It had given the US a much needed victory after a string of defeats.  Doolittle and his men were not failures, they became heroes for a nation in need of heroes and icons.  President Roosevelt joked with the press that the raid had been made from “Shangri-La.”  Japan, which had instilled the thought in its civilian population that they were safe, now had that veneer shattered.  War can and would be waged against Japan – its defenses were not infallible.

Militarily and materially the raid did not tip the scales of the war.  What it did for morale in the United States was beyond value.

A Review of Monuments Men

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When war films come out I get excited and cringe at the same time.  Excited, because I am a fan of the genre.  Cringe – because so many films get it totally wrong.

Having appropriately prepped you – let me say Monument’s Men was awesome.

This is “based on a true story,” which of course means the characters are fictionalized.  That’s okay.  You have a gathering of art and architecture experts, old guys, gathered to help try and save the Nazi-looted treasures.  This required them to be on the front lines, locking horns with unit commanders who were more interested in saving their men’s lives than preserving history.

The movie avoids going over the top historically.  This is not a band of heroes.  They are old farts…not soldiers.  They are not always successful.  A few of them get killed before the movie is over and their deaths are not dramatic, but sad.  In other words, the producers, Smoke House, did a fantastic job of making the movie believable.

What I know about fine art can be fit into a thimble.  But I found myself rooting for these men, desperately hoping they will find the artwork before it is destroyed or re-captured by the Soviets.

I was worried at one point we were going to be drawn into a corny love story – but the writer’s tastefully dodged that.   In fact, this movie is very well written.  It is an ensemble movie – no one character jumps up as the hinge to the story.  Every one of these men has a distinct personality that comes through from their dialogue and the acting.

Bill Murray is funny, yet oddly a wonderful actor.  The scene of him in the officer’s shower, while wordless, is perhaps his best performance ever.  His interplay with actor Bob Balaban throughout the movie shines.

My only critique of the movie was when they arrived in Normandy via landing craft.  I know, I’m nit-picking…but I can’t let that slide.  After that moment, when they all survey the beach, you get a sense of how the locale of the movie has shifted from England to war-torn France.

The movie does a great job of avoiding swearing and gratuitous violence.  Yes, people get killed, but it’s not a typical Hollywood bloodfest.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film.  I’m giving this five stars out of five.  Go see it.  Take other people with you.  This is a story that cannot be told enough.  It is a movie that attempts to define why WWII was being fought.  It wasn’t just about good vs. evil…it was a war to preserve a way of life, our culture, and what best expresses that than our artifacts and art?

The Battle of the Bulge

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Bradley, Eisenhower, and Patton

I was sitting in my office wondering, “What is this week’s blog going to be about?” It is cold, even here in Virginia, and I wanted to do a subject that reflected the weather we’ve had for the last week.  Then it hit me; this is the anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Bulge – December 16, 1944.  For me, it conjures up images of the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division huddled in around the tiny village of Bastogne – and of General Patton’s infamous pivot and drive to relieve them.  I’ve known enough paratroopers in my life to know that the men of the 101st still proudly say that they didn’t need relief…and while I share their sense of unit pride, the armored forces were welcomed when they broke the siege.

For me the battle is interesting for a few aspects.  One, it was a stunning Allied intelligence failure.  The Wehrmacht had assembled an impressive attack force under the noses of the Allied forces almost undetected.  No one anticipated that the Germans were even capable of launching a counterattack on the scale that was unleashed that bitter cold winter.

Another reason this battle stands out for me, as a semi-casual historian, is that it was initially a loss for the Allies.  The German forces had struck back with more fury and with more success than they had been able to demonstrate on the Eastern front.  It is odd the American’s count this as one of their greatest battles given that the first few days of this, it had all but shattered the American forces on the front.   This battle, above all other, validated that the war was destined to drag on for some time longer.

The goal of the offensive had been to divide the Allies and in some respects it did just that; just not in the way Hitler had envisioned.  After the battle, British General Montgomery had claimed credit for the counterattack which sat poorly with the Americans.  Likewise, General Bradley lost some of his clout having suffered the worst of the German offensive and having General Patton playing the role of the cavalry riding in to save the besieged Americans.

It was a battle where nature favored the Germans.  If not for the weather, air power would have devastated much of the German offensive capability.  As it was, snow and fog provided the Germans exactly what they needed.  Once the weather turned and the fighter bombers were in the air, the Germans were ground to a halt and driven back.

There are a myriad of other factors that make the battle interesting for me.  Patton’s turn north was, in my opinion, one of his greatest moments as a field commander.  I’m sure people would argue against me on this, but I stand by my thinking.  Then there’s  Otto Skorzeny sneaking in English speaking commandos behind the lines, waging a war of deception and confusion.  On the more dark side, there was the Malmedy Massacre – a grim reminder of the horrors of war.

This was not America’s greatest moment in WWII.  It was a reminder of just how determined the German enemy was in battle and how they had earned the reputation for battle across Europe.  It began with devastating losses, forcing the Americans to improvise and adapt to a dramatically changing battle situation.  Perhaps that is why we remember the battle so often on the lists of great American struggles.