It’s Christopher Nolan’s World War II movie. And I know that sounds a bit snarky and reductive, but considering that Dunkirk is pretty much exactly the movie I imagined it being when I heard the words, “It’s a Christopher Nolan World War II movie,” I really don’t think there’s any better way to describe it.
You have a problem with Christopher Nolan, don’t you?
Not at all, despite what colleagues of mine might have you believe. I think Nolan’s a legitimate auteur of extraordinary technical acumen, and one of painfully few contemporary filmmakers whose releases feel like cultural events. But unlike his legions of obsessed devotees – blimey, this guy’s fanbase is fucking insufferable – I’m perfectly willing to admit the faults and failings of his filmmaking; to say, for instance, that Interstellar’s entire third act is hippie hogwash, or that even his best films (The Dark Knight and Inception) are still overlong and irritatingly self-indulgent.
See, Nolan’s such a devout technician that for him, the click of a movie coming together isn’t the unity of its themes and ideas, but the gears of a giant mechanism locking into place. He has no sense of emotional proportionality. He believes he’s tackling important existential dilemmas, but he confuses what his movies are about (loss, love, revenge, family) with what they actually are, which is often deliriously gorgeous puzzle boxes that don’t contain much of anything. But when he’s working at his best, his intellectual and emotional shallowness hardly matters; he can claim that time and space are infinite and manipulable, and make you believe him.
Is this a problem in Dunkirk?
Yes – although admittedly less so than usual. It certainly helps that Nolan is dramatizing “The Miracle at Dunkirk”, a strategic retreat that saw thousands of British and Allied troops evacuated from the northern coast of France during the early stages of World War II. The subject’s stakes and humanity are built-in; we feel the collective plight of the thousands assembled on the film’s titular beach, as they grapple with the uncertainty of their rescue and the certainty of Germans advancing behind them. But the key word in that sentence is “collective.” This is a film that excels largely on the strength of individual performances and perspectives, but never really makes you care about any of the individuals involved. Most of the characters aren’t even given names.
Isn’t that intentional, though?
I’m sure it is, and most of my criticisms of Dunkirk can be explained away with that same, simple excuse: It’s intentional. And in a way, I get that. Dunkirk nakedly has no interest in narrative or strong, compelling characters. It wants to show us what happened, and simulate what it might have been like. In some ways, it accomplishes that better than any war movie I can think of. But in others, it doesn’t work – at least not as well as it thinks it does.
So what does work?
Believe it or not, that metronomic precision for which Nolan is best-known. Dunkirk’s opening sequence, which follows a lone, petrified soldier (Fionn Whitehead) in an almost dialogue-free attempt to make his way onto one of the few rescue ships, is so concise and pointedly hopeless that it stands as one of the better stretches of filmmaking in Nolan’s entire career. And while the film somewhat loses that artistic precision as it expands outwards to incorporate the simultaneous narratives of an RAF pilot (Tom Hardy) and a civilian yachtsman (Mark Rylance), it never stops being a work of impeccable technical craftsmanship. The sound is fucking incredible, too, and while it doesn’t deserve the Best Picture Oscar that Nolan’s overzealous Stans will insist it does, I certainly wouldn’t grumble if it picked up a couple of technical ones.
Then there’s the acting, and the cast do their damnedest to accomplish the Herculean task not of escaping from Dunkirk, but of making a Nolan movie feel humanistic. Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of a shellshocked soldier is one of the best I’ve seen, Kenneth Branagh delivers arguably the most understated and naturalistic work of his career, and Tom Hardy once again manages to be compelling with most of his face obscured. Shit, even Harry Styles is good in this.
Okay, then. So what doesn’t work?
Dunkirk’s most nagging and consistent issue is that all the steps it takes towards being a frank and believable depiction of real-world events lead it further and further away from being a moving, human drama. The nameless characters might make a point about how many normal young men were forced to fight and die in a senseless war, but they’re still nameless characters; containers for the point being made, instead of people who might make that point themselves. It’s tough to care about any of them, and Nolan never makes any real attempt to suggest you should. The impression is always that he’s more concerned with the interlocking mechanisms of how the story fits together.
And how does the story fit together?
In three broad tracts that chronicle the evacuation from land, air, and sea, all edited together in the hope of maintaining dramatic coherence. But Nolan’s gonna Nolan, so instead of simply cross-cutting between the action, he contorts the chronology such that we jarringly leap from one perspective to the next, and back again, often with shots running into each other without a transition, despite the fact that each little story proceeds on its own timescale. The land portion lasts about week, the sea a day, the air an hour, so the action doesn’t properly synchronise until the end.
It isn’t – there are title cards that explain specifically what’s happening, although I guess if you missed those for whatever reason then you might struggle to parse it. But aside from the obvious functionality – allowing the events to play with uniform immediacy – I couldn’t tell you what the purpose of expanding and contracting the timelines really serves here. It doesn’t strengthen any of the individual story threads, and really only needlessly overcomplicates how they relate to each other.
I know what the smart-aleck response is – that it’s designed to mimic the disorientation felt by soldiers in wartime. But thanks to the explanatory title cards, there isn’t any disorientation. It’s just a noticeable smarty-pants structural flourish that reminds you near-constantly of the fact that you’re watching a movie, and also of Nolan’s long-standing issues when it comes to directing action and maintaining spatial continuity while doing it.
Okay, but, that aside, did you know that Nolan only shoots on film?
Yes, I did, and frankly I’m fucking sick of people bringing that up as though it’s some kind of revolutionary filmmaking practice, especially when so many of his images are filmed in a colour and lighting range that’s better-suited to digital anyway. It’s the same kind of worthless non-argument as people championing how difficult it was to shoot The Revenant. Were you there in the mountains for all those months? Did you come up with the idea to only shoot in natural light? Do you only shoot on celluloid, too? Oh, no? Then shut the fuck up about it.
Okay, last thing. Does the PG-13 rating hurt it?
No. It’s bloodless, but there’s such a slew of profoundly heavy imagery that it doesn’t feel sterile as a result of that.
So, do you recommend Dunkirk?
Yes, almost unequivocally. I don’t think it’s any kind of masterpiece, but it’s a wholly atypical war movie steered by a visionary director whose technical know-how is second-to-none, and in those terms – which are, really, the only terms it needs – it absolutely works. It has some niggles, sure; it’s cold and distant, emotionally, it isn’t particularly engrossing on a narrative or character level, and the constant shifts in perspective are irksome. But when the bulk of your film is young soldiers being shot at, starved, drowned and blown to bits amid sinking ships and crashing planes, it’s tough not to find some thrill in that.
See it big, and see it loud.
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