Dunkirk Review

23 Jul

Let’s get this out of the way first: Christopher Nolan is a very talented filmmaker. He and his brother have crafted several masterpieces in my eyes, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for his commitment to high(er) concept crowd pleasers. He gets a lot of shit, but his type of filmmaking is desperately needed in an age of mindless entertainment; how many other directors will garner such universal support from the studio, critics, film buffs, and casual moviegoers alike? Yeah, not many.

Now let’s talk about how Dunkirk is one of the blandest films he’s made, a film that is mediocre in most senses of the word and yet has been lavished with nonstop hyperbolic praise. I think Nolan’s pulled a quick one on everyone, hiring guys like Hoyte van Hoytema and Hans Zimmer to help conceal his deficiencies as a screenwriter. They’re certainly wonderful hires, as the former conjures up some absolutely stunning photography and the latter beautifully incorporates suspenseful music into the incessant ticking noise in the background. Nolan himself also deserves a lot of credit for his confidence behind the camera and his eye for the crafting of a set piece, and the shots he and Hoytema capture when they take to the skies are impressive to behold.

Everything else is fine, bordering on bad. For one, the film consists of a grand total of zero interesting characters, a huge problem when we’re supposed to be invested in their situations and in their fates. If all it takes to get the audience invested is seeing a bunch of human beings in a terrible situation, then why do other films always spend time developing characters? Don’t get me wrong; a relative lack of character development and unnecessary exposition can be a positive thing sometimes, but it doesn’t work at all here. It’s like Nolan cloned a bunch of younger versions of himself and then threw them into the film without thinking, hoping that his technical achievements could overshadow the utter lack of effort put into these characters. “But that’s war!” you might say. “Everyone’s just a nameless object in the crowd, and Nolan is showing us that!” That’s certainly true of war, but what is cinema’s job if not to change that perspective? What is cinema’s job if not to introduce people we care about into the horrifying, identity-stripping nature of war in real life?

I hate when filmmakers are too loose with their portrayals of historical figures, but I also hate when no portrayal exists in the first place. I don’t care as much how meticulously crafted everything around the character is when the center of it all feels so empty. Soldiers struggling to reach safety after jumping ship, regular folk trying desperately to save the people fighting for their country, young men waiting nervously on the docks and on the beach and not knowing what may be coming…all of this should in theory feel harrowing and heroic and inspirational, but it’s not when presented by Nolan. Instead of soldiers struggling to reach safety, it’s a bunch of people periodically floundering around in the water. Instead of young men waiting nervously on the docks, it’s a bunch of extras sitting around. I realize I’m in the minority, but there is absolutely nothing in this film that gets me invested in what’s going on. There’s no buildup, no unity. Things just occur. There is absolutely zero reason for his juggling of three timelines. Nolan’s clinical detachment has worked before in his previous films, but it’s the downfall of this one.

Nolan’s screenplay tries to inject some life into the proceedings, but fails. The storyline involving Rylance, Murphy, and two others who are extremely difficult to tell apart from most other characters is nothing but needless, forced drama. The dialogue as a whole is absolutely atrocious, and that’s a shame because a minimalist approach to dialogue in a war film sounds like something fruitful. Let me lay out for you an annoying scene that plays out way too many times in this film: two British officers stand on a dock. The war is occurring around them. They realize the war is occurring. One of the British officers then opens his mouth and slowly spews out one of the themes of the film. Cue ominous or inspirational music and an intense gaze into the distance. Rinse and repeat. It’s not good. I am baffled as to how people can watch this lifeless display of a fascinating real life story and be moved to the point where they fill in the blanks that Nolan left. “Heroism” and “survival” are buzzwords that Nolan throws in there but never truly engages with, precisely because he thinks technical achievements can stand in for character.

This is a C+, upgraded to B- because of how much I respect its craft and the sequences that bookend the film. The opening is an example of tension-building minimalism done right, and the ending features a beautiful cut before Nolan officially cuts to black. Aside from that, though, this is a tedious film to get through, a hollow exercise for a filmmaker who knows how to play with a camera but never gets out from behind that camera.



12 Responses to “Dunkirk Review”

  1. Cindy Bruchman July 23, 2017 at 3:33 pm #

    Love your review! The trailer seemed visually stunning but I didn’t get a sense of a character story behind it. I feel the same about Nolan as you and have read mediocre and rave reviews.
    I predict the faults you found will end up being mine.

  2. disappearingwoman July 24, 2017 at 7:17 am #

    Oh, no! My history-buff-20-years-in-the-Army husband is looking forward to seeing this next weekend. It’s so hard to get him to go to the movies; I hope he finds something he likes about it!

    • polarbears16 July 24, 2017 at 11:54 am #

      Hopefully he does! I’m definitely in the minority on this one.

  3. MovieManJackson July 25, 2017 at 1:13 pm #

    I’m in the minority too. It’s still a great production, but I have no desire to try and find more enjoyment out of this one. I knew it would be emotionally distant, but I didn’t think this emotionally distant. I’d probably lean towards a B-/B if I wrote a think piece as well.

  4. Anonymous July 26, 2017 at 9:20 pm #

    Thanks for your spot-on review. I thought I was the only one who found this movie to be an overhyped letdown.

  5. Jay July 28, 2017 at 10:54 pm #

    I felt a little disappointed by this. I admired it in some respects but didn’t really connect, and felt it was unemotional.

  6. JustMeMike July 29, 2017 at 12:10 am #

    I think that there’s nothing wrong about your take on the film. Yes, as written – it was emotionally distant, and it took the score composed by Hans Zimmer to rev up this viewer’s engagement with the characters. But I am not holding that fact against the film or subtracting some points of appreciation.

    Whether soldiers are fighting to get ON-Shore as in Saving Private Ryan, or are desperately trying to get off shore as in Dunkirk – there’s going to be casualties and deaths. In Saving Private Ryan we saw lots of gore and guts as Captain Miller and his fellows struggled to make it safely ashore and advance.

    Nolan’s film showed us the opposite. And, for me, despite the lack of connection with any characters, it was still an intense experience. Which I guess is due to the technical skills of Nolan and crew.

    But the reality of what was happening on the beaches of Dunkirk, or the beaches of Normandy (D-Day years later) needs no explanation from me. Simple truth is whether standing on the beach trying to leave, or wading toward the beach those men likely did not know specifically what had happened to who of those who were 200-300 yards away.

    Anonimity is the way of war, and such is the way of observers of the action – be they journalists, or generals or in this case a film-maker – they always have a different perspective. Just think of General Cornwallis (played by Tom Wilkinson) in Patriot who watched the battle from a safe vantage point as did Omura in The Last Samurai. Or think of the line from the classic war film Paths of Glory.

    To make an excuse for a failed mission, a general charged three soldiers with a trumped up charge of cowardice. The three soldiers were tried and then executed by a firing squad. French solders killed three of three own on the orders of a general. Later, there was this dialogue between two generals:

    Mireau: I’m awfully glad you could be there, George. This sort of thing is always rather grim but this one had a kind of splendor to it, don’t you think?
    Broulard: I have never seen an affair of this sort handled any better.
    Mireau: The men died wonderfully! There’s always that chance that one of them will do something that will leave everyone with a bad taste. This time, you couldn’t ask for better.

    Really! The men died wonderfully. Shot and killed instantly. Obviously the French General was more protective of his own reputation that the lives of his men. Which I think was at the roots of Nolan’s thinking. We’d seen enough in Private Ryan, in Platoon, and so many other war films where connections were indeed made. This time, Nolan kept us at a distance from the characters.

    It was a choice – not quite like Omura’s or Cornwallis’s, or even General Mireau’s. Nonetheless – a choice made by the Commander or in Nolan’s case – The Director.

    I understand your position and your stance about Dunkirk. As I said up top – it is not wrong. It is simply a different perspective. Nolan did not make the film the way you either expected or hoped – which is his right.

    • polarbears16 August 2, 2017 at 9:33 pm #

      Thank you so much for sharing this very well written comment. You make some excellent points. Ultimately, I felt disengaged by the approach Nolan took but I understand why people would love it.

  7. Jay August 1, 2017 at 4:40 am #

    I was disappointed by this also. Good not great. A little disengaged.

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