Roland Emmerich’s Midway is on Amazon Prime, so I watched it. As you would expect from the director of Independence Day, it’s a watchable, technically adept war movie at a Boys’ Own Paper level of subtlety and depth. If you are looking for an exploration of the stresses of command – Nimitz’ acceptance of a critical battle with no advantage of forces, only the edge of surprise – or of front-line combat, you will be disappointed. This is not an RBC recommendation.
But it does appear to be historically accurate. The events of Midway are sufficiently dramatic not to need embroidery. They even supplied an unambiguous real hero, Lt. Cdr. Richard Halsey Best, the dive-bomber pilot who scored hits on two Japanese carriers in the same day, the one in the Akagi’s hangar dooming the ship.
In the film, Best is played by English actor Ed Skrein as the archetypal talented bad boy who makes good on the day, a clone of the Tom Cruise character in Top Gun and similar action heroes. This characterisation by Emmerich reinforces a narrow stereotype. Hollywood does not always follow this – from Marshal Will Kane in High Noon to the portrayal of pacifist Marine paramedic Desmond Doss in Mel Gibson’s surprising Hacksaw Ridge – but it does so often enough for the stereotyping charge to carry weight.
It’s worth asking whether the portrayal of Best is true to life. It’s not inherently implausible; military pilots, like other combatants, can be nerveless daredevils. But it’s not the only possibility. Homer presents us in the Iliad with three different styles of warrior-hero: Achilles, the Top Chariot Fighter in the Hollywood mold, brave for glory and because he enjoys fighting; Hector, courageous out of honour and duty; and the calculating Odysseus, who is brave because he wants to win, to survive, and to go home to his wife and son. With striking realism, Homer has only the last survive.
So which of these three was closest to the real Richard Best? Surprisingly for such a pivotal and iconic figure, I could find no assessment of his character on the Internet. However, there are enough recorded facts to build a pretty good Identikit portrait.
1. Best married at age 22, and stayed married. I could find no reference to a divorce or remarriage.
2. As a young Navy pilot, he was picked in 1938 for a post as instructor at Pensacola. You do not choose reckless individualists for instructors, but men who can balance aggression and prudence, and can focus on the mission.
3. From Pensacola, he asked for a transfer to an operational dive-bomber squadron – not a fighter one. Fighter pilots win dogfights and glory; bomber pilots can sink ships and win battles. Why not torpedo bombers? Perhaps there was enough scuttlebutt about the obsolescence of the Douglas Devastator plane and its unreliable Mark 13 torpedo.
4. He was regularly promoted, and at Midway was a squadron commander under Air Group Commander Wade McCluskey. Emmerich’s film has them both given field promotions by Halsey in extremis, which is not plausible.
5. In the first attack on the Japanese fleet at Midway, most of the 31 American dive-bombers attacked the Kaga. McCluskey’s claimed orders to split forces were not received. Best noticed the mistake and, without orders, took his two wingmen, Lt. Kroeger and Ensign Weber, to attack the Akagi. Amazingly this tiny force not only survived but destroyed the carrier. Weber was killed in the successful afternoon attack on the Hiryu, but Kroeger survived the war and lived to 89.
6. Best suffered serious damage to his lungs during the day from a faulty ventilator and was hospitalised. He developed full TB, and was invalided out. He never flew for the Navy again – or, as far as I can find out, at all. You would think that if his passion was flying as such, a war hero and master pilot like Best could have found a way to stay in the air, at least for recreation.
7. After leaving the Navy in 1944, Best held two responsible desk jobs: “After discharge from the hospital, Best worked in a small research division of the Douglas Aircraft Corporation. This division became part of the Rand Corporation in December 1948, where Best headed the security department until his retirement in March 1975” (Wikipedia). These do not look like sinecures. Both companies were important and unsentimental military contractors and prime targets for Soviet espionage. Running security for Rand may not have been physically demanding, but it demanded sharp wits and an eye for detail.
I don’t want to understate the sheer nerve required to put a warplane into a near-vertical dive over an enemy warship firing at you with every gun it has, not to release your bomb until you are certain, and to pull out of the dive at the last second before crashing. Still, Best’s CV reads like Odysseus not Achilles to me. I think he risked his life twice on the same day not to show how brave he was, or even out of a high sense of duty, but because he was determined for the United States to win the war.
Corrections and additions welcome.
PS: There is of course a wider debate about heroism, as the coronavirus crisis reminds us daily. The classical Greek authors expanded the canon of heroism to women like Andromache, Cassandra and Antigone, and men like Orestes who struggle with a profound ethical dilemma. Hollywood should follow their example.