You don’t go to Roland Emmerich for subtlety. The director behind such shuddering behemoths as ‘Independence Day’, ‘2012’ and ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ is most comfortable with explosions – he mainly exists to make Michael Bay seem slightly more interesting. ‘Midway’, his cacophonous, often rousing reconstruction of the four-day 1942 naval battle that turned the tide of World War II’s Pacific theatre, is right up Emmerich’s alley. The film pays hypnotic, nearly educational attention to dive-bomber runs, plunging us earthward behind planes as their pilots dip low enough to drop their lethal payloads. Battleship grey and cascading fire are the film’s primary colours; the movie flaunts its hugeness at every turn. You’d never mistake it for the real thing, but Emmerich’s eye for historical detail is impressive.
Still, in our current moment of ‘Dunkirk’ and war films with an arty pulse, ‘Midway’ plays like a Hollywood relic: a two-hour videogame in which all the action goes down without a hint of wind against the actors’ foreheads. (And don’t think too hard about the gaucheness of Emmerich’s opening act, a bloodless reconstruction of the attack on Pearl Harbor.) The movie briefly becomes a superior entertainment whenever it shifts focus to the military strategists behind the hardware: Patrick Wilson’s Japanese-speaking intelligence officer Edwin Layton, guilt-ridden and determined to make good, could have commanded his own plot. But elsewhere, we hear flyboys shout lines like ‘Knock off the cowboy bullshit’, when cowboy bullshit is exactly what Emmerich is all about. He even casts an actor to play legendary western filmmaker John Ford, rolling his documentary cameras to capture Emmerich’s own spectacle.