Christopher Nolan is one of the rare filmmakers in the world that can do anything he wants. He’s reached a level of critical and commercial success that he has earned the leeway to tell the stories he wants with a blank check. Apparently he’s been eager to tell the big screen story of Dunkirk, the mass evacuation of 400,000 Allied troops on a French beach in World War II, and it would be the first film of his career to not have a crime or science fiction slant. If this is what he has to turn into in order for mainstream Oscar attention then please go back to making your sci-fi puzzle boxes, Mr. Nolan, and let someone else make the underwhelming WWII epics. Don’t believe the effusive praise from critics saying this is Nolan’s masterpiece or the finest of his career. Dunkirk is Nolan’s least engaging film and maybe even the least ambitious of his otherwise storied Hollywood career.
Dunkirk is less of a cohesive movie and more a series of moments, never eclipsing the next or coalescing into a larger, more meaningful, more satisfying whole. We keep cutting from primarily three perspectives (air, sea, land) but it fails to feel more than a check-in before moving onto the next vantage point. It’s a shame because the opening ten minutes launch you immediately into this world of danger and Nolan sets up the different perspectives with effective visual clarity. I thought it was a great moment having the soldiers collect the fluttering propaganda fliers meant to remind them about how the enemy surround them. The initial burst of violence is visceral and unnerving. The burial of a soldier in the sand is a somber moment. Things were getting good, and then I kept waiting for the movie to escalate, to hit a new gear, and it never came. Instead it repeated the same plotting that just forced the bland characters from one curtailed escape to another. Screenwriting is about setups and payoffs, and that is strangely absent throughout Dunkirk. Bad things just kind of happen, and then they happen again, and then you tune out. That’s even before Nolan throws in needless non-linear elements that I was ignorant about. Dunkirk is Nolan’s first film under two hours since 2002’s Insomnia, and yet it could still stand to lose even more. After a while, your mind drifts when all you’re watching is poorly written characters, many of whom you can’t identify, jump from one crummy situation to another without a stronger storytelling drive. If you want a more personally involving retelling of the heroes of Dunkirk, just watch the film-within-a-film of the underrated 2017 gem, Their Finest.
The miracle of the Dunkirk evacuation is really lost in this film. Without a more involving story, it’s hard to get a sense about the personal sacrifices and risks of the evacuation. The scope feels mishandled. We’re told that 400,000 men were rescued but I did not get any sense of that scale. We’re stuck to a small corner of a beach, or a small section of the sky and sea, for the far majority of the film, which again traps the film at a lower register. We don’t adequately sense the monumental scale of what is at stake. The embodiment of the threat is condensed down to a single German fighter plane that Tom Hardy has to chase for half the movie. It’s like this guy is the freaking Red Baron. Another aspect that exacerbates this issue is Nolan’s haphazard command of screen geography. When the camera is inside the various ships, your sense of space is uncertain. When things go bad, it just all feels like a mess, with no clear indication of where the characters are, their proximity to others, or even the interior design of the ships. Without a coherent sense of geography, the action and suspense is going to be inherently limited. Nolan locks into a claustrophobic sensation at the expense of audience clarity, and without better-developed action and interesting characters, it’s a decision of diminishing returns.
The characters are so indistinct that most of them in the end credits didn’t even merit names (Irate Soldier, Shivering Soldier, and Furious Soldier are among the lot). This is one of the biggest mistakes of Nolan’s movie. By not providing characters that an audience can engage with he’s handicapped how much an audience can care. We don’t learn about any of the main characters we follow, with the slight exception of Mark Rylance’s even-keeled seafaring father. I challenge audience members to even remember a who’s who of the young men because I don’t think I’d be able to identify them in a lineup. I was still trying to recall which of them may have died. I haven’t had this much trouble keeping people straight in a war film since Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. With Dunkirk, there are faces we follow really more than characters. The most recognizable is Tom Hardy and that’s because he’s Tom Hardy and not because of anything related to his character. Kenneth Branagh’s character just seems to be here to stare off into the distance with awe and say something about “seeing home.” It’s as if Nolan had no interest in telling a war story from a human perspective, which is a vastly strange approach considering the large-scale human cost.
Nolan is a smart filmmaker. He has to know these characters are thinly sketched ciphers at best, so the question becomes why is Nolan choosing to make Dunkirk this way. If I had to hazard a guess I think Nolan was trying to accomplish a visceral, immersive war experience to echo the hopelessness and confusion of those men in jeopardy. They’re meant to be faceless everymen. This would explain why it feels more like a series of moments, of jumping from one failed escape to another and one fraught encounter to another. Nolan does a fine job of introducing conflict (in a wartime setting this also shouldn’t be too hard) but without more distinction he runs the serious risk of everything feeling like more of the same. At the end, thousands of soldiers are ferried back to England and congratulated. One of them is incredulous, not feeling like retreating is worth the fuss. “We just survived,” he says. “Well that’s good enough,” the other says. It’s like Nolan intended to place the audience into a crucible where just getting out was enough to satisfy demands. I don’t think it is.
From a technical standpoint, Dunkirk is often breathtaking, no more so than in its mesmerizing sound design. Nolan uses brilliant sound tacticians to heighten your senses and build a sense of dread. An oncoming fighter plane tearing through the sky can raise the hair on the back of your neck. The sound does the heavy lifting when it comes to creating tension. The score by Hans Zimmer is very effective in that regard as well. Its central musical element sounds literally like a ticking clock, which instantly heightens any scene. Granted adding a ticking clock sound against anything would make it more fraught (you’ll never fill out boring paperwork the same way again). Visually, the aerial photography is gorgeous with the IMAX cameras able to take in such startling depths. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) has some beautiful visual compositions, especially as different boats capsize and the water rushes in at odd angles. This is a film that has commendable technical achievements. It’s Nolan who lets down his team.
War movies often run the risk of being overly reliant upon broad themes of heroism, nationalism, patriotism, sacrifice, and such, which can be in replacement of a strong narrative and well developed, interesting characters. War is a film genre like any other, and there are inherent genre shortcuts that can be abused. However, it’s like any other genre in that, regardless of the setting or situation, you are expected to tell an interesting story with characters the audience cares about. Nolan sacrifices all for the immersion in his war experience machine, providing listless, interchangeable characters and a story that amounts to a collection of harrowing moments but not a movie. My pal Joe Marino chided the movie as akin to visiting a planetarium, sitting back, and taking in the wonderful visual spectacle but walking away unmoved. It’s like Nolan has created the Dunkirk Experience: The Ride instead of an actual worthwhile story.
Nate’s Grade: C+