Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Harry Styles (yes, that Harry Styles)
Runtime: 106 minutes
Some Things Are Never Optional
Let’s start this out with an anecdote, shall we?
At the beginning of “Dunkirk”, nature is calling for one of the main characters. While the enemy is dropping bombs on him, he’s got one of his own to drop, if you will. So, this guy’s just looking for some privacy, doing his thing, and is interrupted twice: the first time by impending death in the form of bullets, and the second by a suspicious onlooker.
After the second interruption, this subplop – uh, subplot - is never revisited. You know what that means? This dude held it for the rest of the Battle of Dunkirk.
That’s history right there.
Joking aside, “Dunkirk” feels like an important film, just like everything put out by Christopher Nolan. He is, perhaps, the greatest director of our day who hasn’t yet obtained the elusive Oscar for best director. In fact, he hasn’t even been nominated for one. If Spielberg has taught us anything, it’s that the Academy loves World War II movies, especially in the directing department.
Without further ado, could this be Nolan’s year, or is “Dunkirk” nothing to write home about?
“Dunkirk” tells the story of, you guessed it, the Battle of Dunkirk. At this point in the war, the German army has pinned the British and French forces on the beach. They have nowhere to go, no immediate hope of escape and are being picked off by German heavy artillery and bombing runs. Churchill, who had just become Prime Minister, issued a request that small boats – namely civilian, merchant and other similar vessels – go to Dunkirk, through U-Boat infested waters, to evacuate the troops. The request was met with overwhelming support, and nearly 400,000 men were evacuated. If this evacuation had been unsuccessful, it is reasonable to assume that Great Britain would have had no choice but to surrender to Nazi Germany.
Needless to say, the implications of this battle in history cannot be understated. The results may be flawed enough to make it fall short of spectacular, but I’m thrilled Nolan chose to take on a story like this
Make no mistake; the direction of this film is top-notch. No one can make movies with the technical precision of Nolan. This time around, he uses that skill to make a movie that is stressful beyond belief. Tense doesn’t even begin to describe it. The decision to never show the enemy soldiers and to only refer to them as “The Enemy” adds to this constant fear of the unseen. Certain shots, full of pure cinematic magic, are ingrained in my mind from their sheer beauty and force.
The always-phenomenal Hans Zimmer only magnifies this beauty and tension with his score. By utilizing the continuous sound of a ticking clock, you’re constantly feeling like time is running out. Every bullet, bomb and rush of water hits hard enough to never let the audience get comfortable. Truly, the soundscape is one of the strongest aspects of this film.
On that note, this movie is loud. It might just be the theater I was in, but my ears were ringing for a solid hour or two after the credits rolled. On top of that, some of the lines of dialogue were difficult to understand. This was a consequence of me being a dumb American who can’t understand deep British accents, but the other sounds drowning out dialogue didn't help either. I would probably benefit from watching “Dunkirk” at a lower volume with subtitles turned on.
One of the other more interesting things going on in “Dunkirk” is Nolan’s decision to split the film into three separate narratives on one timeline. Nolan is known for his non-traditional storytelling, and getting to see three different sides of the battle – land, sea and air – was a treat. We watch all three narratives play out concurrently, despite them happening at one week, one day and one hour out from evacuation, respectively. This allows for some unforgettable reveals about how these three separate stories all intertwine.
Unfortunately, this structure is not without its significant cons. Watching “Dunkirk” requires a lot of work, and if you aren’t in tune and paying attention to every detail, you could get lost. Additionally, I can think of at least one instance where the audience has to watch the same event happen three times from slightly different angles, none of which add anything revolutionary to the story.
Also, while this structure does have some unforgettable smaller reveals, it takes away from some of the big ones. A particularly grim scene precedes the hardest-hitting emotional moment of the film, diminishing its effect and leaving the audience wondering whether they should clap or cry. One could argue this was intentional, but for me, it was jarring.
However, the biggest disappointment about “Dunkirk” was its total lack of character development. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I couldn’t tell you a single thing about any of the characters. I found it odd that when I was talking about the movie, I referred to the characters by the actors who played them. That’s when it hit me: I don’t even know any of the characters names.
They do have names. I checked. But that’s how little we’re driven to care about these characters. They have no backstories. No apparent loved ones they’re trying to make it home to see. No interests, likes or dislikes (except Nazis, presumably). We’re given no reason to care whether they live or die outside of the fact that they’re on the right side of history. This totally unacceptable decision holds “Dunkirk” back from being one of Nolan’s best films.
I firmly believe that “Dunkirk” could have been one for the history books if Nolan had fleshed out these characters more and given us a reason to care. This would probably add 20 to 30 minutes to the runtime, but “Dunkirk” is short as it is. It would still be shorter than most epics even with the extra time. One reviewer said that “Dunkirk” is a great second half of a movie. I couldn’t agree more.
I’d recommend “Dunkirk” if you like to see the movies that will get Oscar talk or if you’re a fan of Nolan’s films. War movie aficionados will find something to like here too. If none of those things describe you and you’re looking for something to see, I’d recommend “Baby Driver” or “Wonder Woman” instead.
Check out the rest of my reviews here.