OP-ROB RATING: STARTER
“Dunkirk” is a 2017 war film directed by Christopher Nolan about the evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II, between May 26th and June 4th, 1940. The evacuation involved hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers who were cornered by the German army. While the evacuation was the result of a horrendous military defeat, the Allies' survival is celebrated as a miracle rescue in the face of certain death. A failed evacuation could have resulted in a German invasion of Britain, and an Axis victory in the war.
The film stars an ensemble cast including Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead, Jack Lowden, Cillian Murphy, and Harry Styles among others. To describe each character would be tedious and unhelpful, as the general structure of the film has almost nothing to do with their personal identities. With the characters as placeholders, “Dunkirk” is organized into three plot lines that occur in separate spans of time, each depicting a different backdrop of the evacuation. At one point during the film all them overlap. This is signature Nolan, who has played with time structures in several of his films including “Memento” and “Inception”. The first plot line is titled “The Mole”, and lasts for one-week detailing activities on the beach at Dunkirk and the mad scramble of soldiers desperately trying to hitch a boat ride back to England. The second plot line, “The Sea” takes place in one day, and portrays British locals who are tasked with taking a day-boat across the channel to help rescue soldiers. The final, and most briefly framed segment is “The Air”, and stars Tom Hardy as a daring Spitfire pilot whose story takes place in one hour. Despite the disparities of the time frames, each “chapter” is given roughly the same amount of screen time.
As far as construction, “Dunkirk” reminds me a lot of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 film, “Gravity”. Both are a series of thrilling near-death experiences from which characters must narrowly escape. This, along with an extremely loud score by Hans Zimmer, provide consistent tension to the movie. Furthermore, the constant noise and action lend precious little time for talking amongst characters. As Nolan explained in an interview with Premiere, “I did not want to go through the dialogue, to tell the story of my characters…The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? Will they be killed by the next bomb while trying to join the mole? Or will they be crushed by a boat while crossing?”
The Nolan effect works best with films that have muddled plots. Take “The Dark Knight Rises” as the premiere example. It is a stirring, visually spectacular film, but its plot has more holes than the Brooklyn Net’s roster and the narrative is absurd when you map it out scene by scene. Such is the case with all super-hero films. Men and women in full costume fighting crime is comical when applied to the real world. Yet with his “Dark Knight” films Nolan was able to distract the audience enough to make his corner of the super-hero genre look and sound serious. It is an incredible skill and it is also Nolan’s biggest weakness as a director. Unlike the “Dark Knight Trilogy”, “Dunkirk” is based on a true story. The Nolan distraction is grand and inspiring, but lacks context and continuity. I didn’t learn much of anything about Dunkirk while watching “Dunkirk”.
When all of the visual grandeur and ear-blasting sound is stripped away, there are precious few moments worth remembering from the film. One of them occurs near the end, in which a boatload of soldiers arrive home in England. The downtrodden men shuffle toward a train where volunteers hand out tea and biscuits. An elderly man with his head down hands out blankets telling the men, “well done” as he distributes them. Styles’ character receives his blanket and, out of shame, tells the old man “we just survived”. The old man responds, “that is enough” and continues passing out blankets and telling the defeated soldiers, “well done”. In the end, this scene is the most poignant in all of “Dunkirk”. It is a subtle message about patriotism, the value of survival, the wisdom of old men, and the importance of morale.
The best war movies have moments with characters we feel we know as an audience. Something changes in those characters, and that change reflects a greater truth about the nature of war. “Dunkirk” is a finely crafted emotional squall, but it’s overall message is lost in the tumult. Nolan is particularly skilled at sustaining a feeling of “epicness” throughout a scene. No other director can really compare. I walked out of the theater with tears in my eyes. Yet, an hour later when thinking about the message of “Dunkirk”, I couldn’t point to a wire-to-wire narrative and say “Yes! This is what ‘Dunkirk’ is really about.” Ultimately, I think it’s worth looking back at that quote from Nolan in his interview, because I think he succeeds in his mission. In terms of a thrill-ride, “Dunkirk” is top of the line. The sound, the visuals, the acting, the music… it is all very high quality. However, as a deeper exploration into the nature of war and a documentation of a major historical event, “Dunkirk” barely scratches the surface.