Christopher Nolan’s ambitious film about the 1940 evacuation of allied troops from Dunkirk is one of the great visual cinematic spectacles of the 21st century, and for that, he should be applauded.
Unfortunately, some of his scripting and editing decisions take away from the effectiveness of his movie. In a strange way, this is one of his least successful films.
We are talking about the guy who made Interstellar, The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Inception, Insomnia and Memento. All of those films are better movies than Dunkirk. They are, in fact, great movies.
Dunkirk is a good movie, and an occasionally astounding one if you manage to see it on an IMAX screen. Nolan shot on film, with all scenes intended for IMAX. Mixed with some incredible soundtrack work by Hans Zimmer, the movie begs to be seen in theaters.
All that said, it still feels like a bit of an empty experience in some ways. I’m glad I saw it. I’m glad it exists, but it didn’t blow me away.
Nolan, who also wrote the sparsely worded screenplay, sets the film into three parts. One part is the events on the beach, which take place over a week. The second part is the evacuation at sea, which unfolds in a day. The third is the battle in the air, which covers an hour’s worth of events. The film jumps from one timeline to the next, often abruptly, with the stories ultimately interconnecting.
Any Nolan fan knows that he loves to make his movies complicated in relation to time—Memento being a prime example—and the director himself has called Dunkirk his most experimental yet.
Nolan is out to prove that you can cut away from a harrowing ship-sinking sequence to an also harrowing battle sequence set in the air and maintain the tension. He simply doesn’t pull off the stunt every time. There are moments when he cuts away to another timeline that are nothing short of totally frustrating and unnecessary. It feels like a director being a little too cute.
I know, I know. Nolan is trying to show how hectic, crazy and unilaterally nuts the whole situation was, with each battle and predicament equaling the last as far as horror goes. That sort of thing goes without saying. Soldiers and civilians were put through all kinds of hell, with one terrible occurrence after another. But, what Nolan tries to do here is experiment at the expense of good, clean, straightforward filmmaking. As things stand, his movie puzzle games work better with fiction than they do with real-life events.
Mark Rylance captaining a private boat on his way to rescue men from Dunkirk and Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked ship-sinking survivor are the main performances in the “sea” portion of the movie, and they offer up the film’s best acting. Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles play soldiers on the beach, and let it be said that Styles is a natural on screen. Tom Hardy, his face once again covered by a mask for a Nolan film, plays one of the fighter pilots. Kenneth Branagh is on hand as Commander Bolton, overseeing the evacuation on land.
Zimmer’s soundtrack, which uses a ticking stopwatch, manages to ratchet up the tension and deliver some glorious notes. In many ways, it’s the glue holding the whole enterprise together.
Nolan decided to use real ships, planes and sets rather than relying on CGI. In many ways, this gives Dunkirk the sort of epic visual scope lacking in many high-definition, CGI-heavy efforts. This looks and feels like a real movie.
By all means, go see Dunkirk while it’s in theaters. It’s certainly a good workout for the eyes and ears, and enough of the moments resonate to make the movie worthwhile. Just be prepared to be slightly let down if you think this is going to be Nolan’s best, or even one of the year’s best. It falls short by those standards.