Dunkirk, the latest from acclaimed filmmaker Christopher Nolan and the most recent movie to be based on the War that keeps on giving, is an unrivaled spectacle of film making. This visual tour de force covers the 1940 Dunkirk military evacuation from three different perspectives (land, air and sea) and interweaves those viewpoints with Nolan’s signature disjointed timeline to create a somewhat confusing but ultimately run of the mill narrative. This movie doesn’t set out to say as much as it does to show, but what we see as an audience is breathtaking from start to finish.
Nolan, particularly since his transition to blockbuster films, has been incredible at creating visually stunning set pieces and has always tried to get as much of that done with practical effects as possible. Those attributes coalesced around our world wide love affair with romanticizing World War II but the movie we received out of that pairing is a bit unusual. Often, an unusual take on something that has been done to death garners praise without a critical eye being applied but I guess that’s what you’re here for, right?
The first half of Dunkirk feels like a very long pre-title card sequence. If not for visual guides establishing the three different phases of this movie, the way the movie is filmed, with sharp cuts, loud music and lack of dialogue really feels like it’s building to something. This was probably done to create an appropriate level of tension, considering the subject matter but it does manufacture a itch that never felt like it got scratched.
What’s happening to build this tension is again, breathtaking. There’s a reason Nolan is seen as the top of his craft when it comes to the design aspects of film. The execution of his vision, the beauty in the bleakness of war, the way the the human condition is on display by means of the bloodiest parts of our history is historically something worth writing movies about. It’s just a shame that it doesn’t feel like there’s a point.
And maybe that is the point? Dunkirk feels like a supremely stylized documentary, forgoing the establishment of engaging characters and plot by just retelling actual events. There are big name actors in this film, Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy from the Nolan stable to name a few, and while some of these characters are even named, it doesn’t actually matter. They all serve as a mixture between audience surrogates and anthropomorphized cameras, particularly when it comes to the land and air portions of this film.
The sea plot line is where the movement of the story takes place and the most compelling interactions occur. British luminary Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson captains a civilian boat along with his son and his son’s friend towards Dunkirk in hopes of helping to evacuate the soldier trapped there. During their trip they encounter and are subject to the other two stories, making the sea plot line the main driver of the film overall. Throughout their time on the boat they are shown all of the horrors of war and what little time they have on screen, Mr. Dawson and his son show a depth of emotion and actual growth from their experiences.
Keeping the main cast smaller, largely unnamed and nondescript is part of the overall approach to having the war as a setting rather than an additional character. The opposing army is clearly Germany, but you rarely see them and they are rarely called as much. The story focuses so much on the evacuation, something that we know historically was successful as far as evacuations go. Having this knowledge and this settings allows for a story to be told free of the need to apply any deeper meaning or motive. For someone like Nolan that deals in spectacle, this is a godsend but as a viewer it left me wanting more.
There are so many larger than life figures surrounding the Dunkirk evacuation and this could have easily been a film from the outside of Dunkirk looking in. Keeping it at ground level, dealing with soldiers and civilians instead of people miles away from the fighting makes for what could and should have been compelling cinema, but the way it’s arranged puts up a difficult hurdle.
Dunkirk is gorgeous and I would recommend seeing it in 70 mm if you can but be ready for what may be Hans Zimmer’s most intense score to date piping full blast through the IMAX theater speakers. If you’re a fan of all of Nolan’s work, his style and signature is all over this film and the amount of amazing practically shot sequences is worth price of admission alone. I could watch the dog fighting with those period accurate fighter planes over and over again but I couldn’t tell you the names of any of the pilots. And therein lies the problem for me personally: Dunkirk is fun to look at but lacks the substance to make it the next great war film. Part of why you should see it on as large a screen as possible is because you’ll likely only need to see this once. There’s not enough going on in the narrative to compel you to want to watch again, not even Harry Styles. The only thing old One Direction did well was display the disillusionment on screen that I felt while sitting in the theater.