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+
Roald Dahl is the kind of highly imaginative, inventive, and subversive children’s author that makes one wonder why more of his books don’t end up as movies. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the best known, and there’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and the rather spooky for kids 90s film, The Witches (it at least spooked me as a kid). For such a prolific author, it’s a little curious he has so few film credits. Steven Spielberg is one of the most successful directors of the modern era, so if anyone could wrangle Dahl’s wondrous worlds onto the big screen, he should. The BFG should be a transporting experience brought to vivid life with cutting-edge technology. All the special effects in the world, however, can’t solve a raft of nagging script problems that manage to take the fantastic and make it boring and predictable.
In 1980s London, little orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) is abducted one night when she spots a giant blowing a mysterious trumpet into the windows of sleeping children. Fortunately for Sophie her captor is the BFG (Mark Rylance), which stands for Big Friendly giant, and he’s a vegetarian, having sworn off the bone-eating habits of his nastier giant peers. In Giant Country, the BFG collects and cultivates dream particles, concocting special mixtures that he then shares with sleeping children. The other giants bully and snidely dismiss the puny BFG. Sophie and the kindly BFG must work together to stop the larger giants from going back to London and dining on innocent children.
The BFG has some pretty big friendly problems when it comes to its misshapen plot structure and its alarming lack of urgency or escalation. We’re all familiar, consciously or unconsciously, to the three-act story structure at this point, which is the principle formula for screenwriting. The BFG gets started pretty quickly, abducting Sophie and taking her to the land of giants by around the 15-minute mark, and from there the movie seems to take a leisurely stroll. I can’t really tell you where the act breaks are because the movie just sort of luxuriates in the meandering interaction between the BFG and his human pupil. There’s the initial threat that the other cannibalistic giants will discover her and this threat pops up in a handful of set pieces where Sophie has to constantly find new hiding places. Unfortunately, this threat never really magnifies or changes. She might get caught, and then she doesn’t. She might get caught, and then she doesn’t. There’s a repetition to this threat with our antagonists at no point getting more threatening. This is and a lack of a narrative motor make the movie feel rudderless, plodding from one moment to the next without a larger sense of direction. And then the third act comes (spoilers), presumably, when Sophie and the BFG travel back to London to try and recruit the Queen of England’s (Penelope Wilton) help. This sequence includes an extended breakfast that it punctuated by the memorable climax of watching the Queen fart and her little corgies fly around the room powered by their flatulence. It has to be the climax because what follows certainly doesn’t follow. Within five minutes, the BFG leads the Brits back to the land of giants and they restrain and airlift all the other giants in shockingly easy fashion. It’s a victory that feels relatively hollow because of its ease. These giants were never much of a threat to begin with, which is why we spent more time deliberating over dream ingredients than a retreat from man-eating colossuses.
Another aspect of Dahl’s novel that falls flat on screen is his verbal gymnastics and witticisms. It just doesn’t work with actors repeating the words without the text in front of your eyes. Listening to the BFG talk for any extended period of time is like being stuck with a crazy person muttering to him or herself. I would estimate that at least 60% of the BFG’s dialogue is folksy malapropisms. It’s not endearing and grows rather tiresome, especially with the unshakable stagnation of the movie’s plot. And so we get scene after scene of a big CGI creature talking verbal nonsense. Are children going to be entertained by any of this? Are they going to be engaged with the giant’s gibberish or will they find it one more impenetrable aspect of a movie and a story that seems to keep the audience at length? I couldn’t engage with the movie because it never gave me a chance to invest in what was happening. The BFG is a gentle soul and shouldn’t be bullied by his giant brethren, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to automatically love him. I didn’t.
For a Spielberg movie this feels oddly absent his more charming and whimsical touches. There are scant moments where it feels like Spielberg is playing to his abilities in this fantasy motion capture world, like exploring the underwater land where the BFG gathers his dream ingredients, and in the narrow and messy escapes Sophie has not to be caught. It’s a shame that the creative highs of Spielberg in full imagination mode are too often absent the rest of the movie. He too feels like he’s coasting, allowing the technology and the fantasy setting to do the heavy lifting. The land of the giants is a bit too underwhelming as far as fantasy worlds go. It’s simply too recognizable except for slight peculiarities, like “snozcumbers.” It’s not an enchanting location and we’re not given enchanting characters, and with the little narrative momentum or escalating stakes. I experienced a lot more fun and whimsy from Spielberg’s other major mo-cap movie, the nearly forgotten 2011 Adventures of Tintin. The action sequences especially had such a lively sense of comic brio and imagination that was pure Spielberg. I get no such feeling from The BFG. If you told me that Robert Zemeckis had made this movie I wouldn’t have blinked. I don’t know if Spielberg was hoping to recapture that E.T. magic with screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who passed away in 2015) but this isn’t close.
I will credit the special effects department for the amount of work put into Rylance’s BFG visage, which looks eerily like the Oscar-winning actor. The range of the facial expressions is another sign that mo-cap performances are just as legitimate as live action flesh-and-blood performances. I can admire the technical feats of the character while not exactly feeling that much enjoyment from that character. The interaction between the computer elements and the real-life elements could be better, most bothersome with little Sophie interacting with the giant’s giant personal things.
I was left wondering whom The BFG is supposed to appeal to. I think kids and adults will be bored by its slow pace and stagnant, minimal stakes, weird and unengaging characters and their annoyingly impenetrable speech habits, and the overall lack of charm and wonder. It’s saying something significant when the most mesmerizing part of a fantasy movie is watching the Queen of England, her dogs, and a room full of her royal servants violently fart green clouds of noxious gas. That was the one moment in my screening where the kids in the room seemed to be awake. Otherwise the BFG character must have calmly put them to sleep with his prattling gibberish. It’s not an insufferable movie and there are fleeting moments of entertainment, but they drift away like a memory of a dream. There just isn’t enough going on in this movie to justify its near two-hour running time. Not enough conflict, not enough world exploration, not enough character bonding, not enough whimsy, and not enough entertainment. It feels too lightweight to matter and too dull to enchant. The BFG could have used more farts. That would be a sign of life.
Nate’s Grade: C+
An intriguing behind-the-scenes negotiation during a heightened period of danger, Bridge of Spies relies upon its history to do the heavy lifting and it’s plenty enough for a handsomely made, reverent, and engaging legal procedural that’s also hard to muster great passion over. Tom Hanks is again a noble everyman, this time an insurance lawyer, James Donovan, called in to defend a mild-mannered Russian spy (Mark Rylance) captured during the Cold War. Things get even more complicated when spy pilot Francis Powers is shot down over Soviet airspace. The movie’s civil liberties arguments are pretty clear and still applicable to our modern era, but the movie becomes exponentially more interesting once Powers is captured and Donovan travels to Eastern Berlin to negotiate a prisoner swap while trying to work three sides, the Americans, the Russians, and the Eastern Germans who were hungry for legitimacy. It’s during these back-and-forth negotiations and posturing that the movie really hits its stride, pulling incredible facts together while forcing our protagonist to be the world’s greatest poker player. It’s the details of this story that makes it feel more fulfilling from spy techniques to the new life on the other side of the Berlin Wall. The acting is robust and Rylance (TV’s Wolf Hall) makes a strong impression in a role that requires him to be cagey to a fault. Hanks is his usual determined, inspirational self, which plays all the right emotions in a way that still feels expected and a little boring. Bridge of Spies is a slighter Steven Spielberg affair, a good story well told with good actors but a movie missing essential elements to plant itself in your memory. It’s a fine movie but sometimes fine is just not enough, and considering the talent involved in front of and behind the camera, I expect better.
Nate’s Grade: B