Christopher Nolan is one of the most consistently excellent filmmakers working today. Even if you don’t care for one of his ten feature films very much, it’s hard to say that any are objectively “bad.” I did not care for his latest, Dunkirk, and I am going to be in the vast minority on that point of view, but hey…I’m used to it.
The movie is based on the historical tale of the Battle of Dunkirk. Here’s the skinny in case you’re not a WWII buff: In May of 1940, the Nazis advanced west, trapping Allied troops on the beaches of Dunkirk, a small community on the northern coast of France. Under air and ground cover from British and French forces, troops were slowly and methodically evacuated from Dunkirk’s beaches using every serviceable naval and civilian vessel that could be found. At the end of this heroic mission, 330,000 French, British, Belgian and Dutch soldiers were safely evacuated. Note the words “slowly” and “methodically.” Sounds like gripping source material, no?
This movie is the most visually spectacular film I have seen this year, which is not hard to imagine from the maker of Inception and Interstellar. Visuals are not a challenge for Nolan, but visuals alone are not enough to carry a film across the finish line for me. We’re treated to a bare minimum of dialog, and a veritable absence of any character development. People complain about the glut of superhero films (perhaps rightly so), and talk in terms like “comic book fatigue,” but what about WWII fatigue? I’m not downplaying the historical importance of the events of WWII, but I just don’t think this film had any new insight into a very treated subject. I found the film to be story-less, rather rote and uninspired, though admittedly well-crafted. To sum it up in a word: boring.
It’s so boring, in fact, that I’m sure this film will be shown on grading days in many a high school history class going forward.
I mentioned the visuals. It’s undeniable that this film is like a moving painting. So if that’s all you need, you’ll love it. See it in IMAX or 70MM if you possibly can — It is a treat for the eyes. Especially eye-dosing are the scenes featuring Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden as fighter pilots, where the light from the sun glimmers off the ocean, it’s absolutely breathtaking. Those scenes are easily among the best of this picture. The sound must also be acknowledged. Filming on IMAX cameras is notoriously noisy and puts extra pressure on the sound design and score. So what do you do? You hire Hans Fucking Zimmer, that’s what you do. Zimmer is an absolute genius who underpins much of the score with a ticking watch sound that ups the tension and urgency splendidly. Sadly, it all falls apart, because ultimately that tension goes nowhere. As if in a scene from the film, Dunkirk crash-lands silently and unspectacularly on a beach; beautiful yet calm, like a failed jack-in-the-box.
The real life Battle of Dunkirk may be slightly under-explored by the general American public, but history fans and the Brits know it well. This is not new ground, and there is no unique point of view here. If there is a message to this film — other than “War sucks, let’s go home!” — I missed it completely. This film neither glorifies nor demonizes the war in any way. The events therein simply…happen.
Nolan completists and fans of great visuals will love this picture. Fans of deep story and rich characters will not. Tom Hanks would have made it better, I guess…and that’s all I have to say about that.
2.5 out of 4 Stars
Dunkirk hits theaters nationwide this Friday, July 21st. We hope you enjoy it more than Matt did.