Midway is an English-language film financed substantially with Chinese money, directed by a German, about one of the defining American victories of World War II. If you're thinking that means it's probably a muddle, I have good news: you're not wrong.

We could put it another way: you know how Roland Emmerich has kind of always felt like a discount version of Michael Bay? Well, Midway is his Pearl Harbor. And while that sounds like the kind of wretched rancidity that leaves a stain on your soul that no amount of praying will ever make clean, there's one important difference: Pearl Harbor makes a strong case for being Bay's very worst film, while Midway is one of the best things Emmerich has ever touched. This is not, as compliments go, a very good one. But I still think it's true.

First point in Midway's favor: no terrible romantic triangle pitched at the emotional level of a pre-adolescent boy. Indeed, not much in the way of character drama at all: this is much more of a procedural than anything else, tracking how several different members of the U.S. Navy, from all levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy, go about their duties between the attack by the Japanese Navy on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, and the U.S. Navy's successful defense of the military base on Midway Atoll ending on 6 June 1942. A couple of them are given personal lives worth talking about, but for the most part this is all about how to conduct naval warfare in the 1940s. This is mostly focused on two different narrative lines: in one, Naval intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) leads a team based in Hawai'i under Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) to determine what the Japanese are planning, to make up for his failure to persuade his superiors that the Pearl Harbor attack was imminent. In the other, several crew members of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, most notably Lieutenant Dick Best (Ed Skrein) and Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky (Luke Evans), go slightly crazy from tension, boredom, and bloodlust as they busy themselves with various recon missions and a dwindling sense of morale. Meanwhile, Japanese Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku (Toyokawa Etsushi), a onetime acquaintance of Layton's when the latter was stationed in Tokyo, tirelessly works to develop the plans that will crush any American presence in the Pacific, despite his substantial misgivings that his country has completely bungled its naval strategy up to this point.

There are a great many more individuals than that who'll keep popping up, some played by famous people and some not; the film's ensemble-based approach is probably the surest sign of all that this is an Emmerich project, given his penchant for Irwin Allen-style disaster movies, in which several criss-crossing melodramas are interrupted by CGI action sequences. Only without the melodrama, which is great, because Emmerich has never been very good at that. Instead, Midway focuses on the unsexy nuts and bolts of military operations, right from the very start: the opening scene between Layton and Yamamoto in 1937 exists mostly to explain for the audience the overall strategy that led to Japan's war of the aggression in the Pacific, making an unusual example of a film mostly built for Americans that actually bothers to walk us through the Japanese perspective of the war. Anyway, after that, it's all a bunch of meetings to discuss flight assignments, intercut with Wilson putting far too much effort into giving his character a glowing inner life so that when he sweatily insists over and over again that he's almost ready to correct the government's faulty intelligence on Japanese ship movements, we understand that he really cares about it, or something.

I snipe at the movie - for after all, the movie isn't very good - but in truth, I like the game it's playing. Movies about World War II, especially American movies about World War II, love to function as tales of individual heroism, or sacrifice, or both. Midway is instead about a collective effort, largely executed through the means of a lot of bureaucracy, to devise and execute an enormously complicated battle plan (this group approach resembles the trend in contemporary Chinese blockbusters towards collective protagonists so nearly that I'd almost like to wonder if it has to do with the influx of Chinese money. But this is probably not the case: Emmerich has been shopping around a version of this project since the 1990s). It's a very "dad who likes war documentaries" type of movie, too its credit. When Emmerich goes for human emotions, or robust patriotism, the results are generally pretty wretched (apologies to anyone who loves the "Today we celebrate our Independence Day" speech from Independence Day, though not very sincere apologies). When he focuses on the mechanics of how shit gets done, it's... well, this, and not really anything else that I can think of since the long-ago 1994 movie Stargate, which remains his best work - not coincidentally, I am sure. It's satisfying, anyway.

That's when he focuses on mechanics, and he doesn't always in Midway. As surprised as I am by how much of the film unfussily focuses on intelligence gathering and military bureaucracy, there's also a lot that focuses on the earnest wartime passions of the men in the U.S. Navy. And this is generally trite garbage, with clunky, gooey dialogue delivered by inane characters - notwithstanding that most of the named people are based on real-life humans, the cast of Midway acts and sounds somewhat indistinguishable from the characters in a 1940s war-themed cartoon short. Among other things, it appears from the film that every member of the Navy at this time was either from Brooklyn or Alabama; wherever in those locations where the accents were most impenetrable. While this everybody's-a-caricature (except for Patrick Wilson, for some reason) approach merely causes pros like Dennis Quaid, playing Vice Admiral "Bull" Halsey a bit of cute embarrassment, Skrein is uniquely unbearable, and he unfortunately gets the most screentime, especially as the film moves away from the intelligence offices and into the thick of the titular battle. A battle that is somewhat visually impenetrable, I regret to say.

But truth be told, even the slightly-to-extremely obnoxious characters end up being sort of the right fit for the movie. I don't know if this is on purpose, but Midway captures a vibe that no other post-Saving Private Ryan WWII film has even tried for: it feels uncommonly like the kind of chipper, can-do, we're-all-in-this-together upbeat movie about boldly colorful Navy men that got produced during and right after WWII itself. Skrein is terrible and the film's impression of Dick Best is smudgy and generic; but it's the specific kind of smudginess that one might find in a movie from 1944, say. Certainly, the no-holds-barred Brooklyn accent feels exactly like something out of a '40s B-picture that nobody thinks is any damn good anymore, but everybody agrees is pretty watchable. Even the fact that his budgetary woes meant that Emmerich had to scale back on the effects sequences is right; it means a lot of scenes of people talking in cheaply-established clubs and belowdecks spaces, with Wes Tooke's screenplay capturing something just right about the cadence of '40s speech patterns and slang, peppered with a couple of shits and a single fuck to nod at least somewhat in the direction of realism.

There's something almost appealing about all of this. The characters are all stock types in the least interesting way, and the actors don't do much with them - when Wilson is the clear stand-out of a cast that includes Quaid, Harrelson, and Aaron Eckhart, something has gone awry. The script, for all its arms-length focus on the daily business of warfare, still finds a way to inelegantly shove Jimmy Doolittle (played by Eckhart) into the film for some five or ten thoroughly unproductive minutes (the sequence shows off nameless Chinese villagers as noble, anonymous heroes, and the best I can come up with is that this was all done as a concession to the Chinese investors), on top of some dithering boilerplate about Best's home life, and a baffling scene of director John Ford (Geoffrey Blake) working on the documentary The Battle of Midway, a shrill caricature that leaves me confused if Emmerich thinks that Ford is the most offensive director who ever lived, or the most undaunted and fearless. The Battle of Midway itself is a frenzy of ill-motivated cross-cutting that leaves it hard to parse the flow of combat; it also showcases some decidedly insufficient CGI flames. It is not a good film; for it is a Roland Emmerich film. But there's something gratifyingly straightforward about it that makes it one of the vanishingly few Emmerich films that haven't irritated the hell out of me; it's a movie that thinks all of this material is interesting, and stares at it with such intensity that it somewhat drags us along to find it interesting as well. Which, for this director, and a film that looked this mortifying on paper, counts as an almost miraculous success.