Dunkirk is a Mediocre Movie Disguised as a Brilliant Film [Review]
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Music by: Hans Zimmer
Running time 106 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language
Dunkirk is a large cacophony of unique film technique, precise execution, and historical ambivalence. While my first impressions were less than stellar, and have had time to mellow and become more reasonable I am still far from in love with this film as a whole. That said, there are elements and parts of this film that I do adore, and I absolutely understand the praise it is receiving, and I am willing to accept that I may be lonely in my disapproval.
The first and foremost element in this film that still, even in mellowed retrospect, makes me feel crazy is the non-linear fashion in which Christopher Nolan decided to tell this story. It absolutely left me dumbfounded and struggling to keep up with what was happening. While the film raced forward to the steady tick of a clock I was very near to shouting at the screen “what day is it?” I entered the film with a very minimal familiarity with the history. I knew the basic story, and I knew the rescue stretched over several days. With the travel, back and forth over the timeline as the film followed three different perspectives I quickly lost track of how much time was passing. While I am not an enthusiastic fan of subtitles informing the audience of dates, times, or locations, in this case those could have helped me quickly index where we were, and then when the perspectives converged I would not have been a little confused. In the end, I can’t help but feel this technique was Christopher Nolan showboating rather than focusing solely on allowing the story to be told in as clear a way as possible.
The second element that turned into a stumbling block, and I feel hurt the film, was the lack of expositional dialogue. While the adage ‘show don’t tell’ is a tried and true rule in film, sometimes it can run wild. While the audience was shown enough, in remarkable ways, to convey the narrative, characters were lost in the waves. For me to personally feel a sense of danger and tension arise from a story I need to be able to identify, and understand a character. I don’t need a full backstory, or to understand what motivates every action they take, but I need to know who is on the screen. At times, I couldn’t tell one dirty soldier with messy hair dressed in olive green, from another dirty solder in olive green.
The third, and my final, flawed element I find in this film is the fictionalized history. Rather than use actual firsthand accounts, Christopher Nolan invented his own. In doing so he lost the scale of the rescue and encounter. There was at no point a sense that there were over 600 vessels involved, multiple Royal Air Force squadrons, over 9 days. Also by intentional concealing the imminent threat from the German forces the threat was a struggle to comprehend. While this minimalist approach might have worked, the two problems I expanded upon above served as an impenetrable empathy barrier. I honestly felt more emotion reading the historical accounts to research this review than I did through the entire film.
Finally, there is more than enough to praise about Dunkirk. The sound design and Hans Zimmer’s score is phenomenal. I would be hard pressed to find a score that drive a narrative like this one, and the sound design kept my anxiety peaked. It was absolutely perfect. The cinematography was impeccable, I would never say that Christopher Nolan does not know how to set up a beautiful shot, he knows how to use every frame and inch of film to deliver a visual feast.
Some people will love this film, I am not one of them. I have an overwhelming respect for what Nolan attempted here, I simply feel he did not reach that aspiration.