If you know me, you know that I hold director Christopher Nolan in some degree of high esteem – the man made the Dark Knight Trilogy that not only saved Batman’s franchise, but formed the modern blueprint for comic movies you see today. Before I truly started viewing and critiquing movies, I thought Nolan was the “gold standard” for Hollywood blockbusters. I found myself comparing movies to Nolan’s filmography and eventually I found that it’s not that Nolan is a visionary – he just makes blockbusters gift-wrapped in strong technical filmmaking and surrounds himself with talent like Director of Photography Wally Pfister and Composer Hans Zimmer. I don’t hate Christopher Nolan, I just don’t understand why film buffs constantly emphasize the “Christ” in his name. After his sci-fi wonder Interstellar (2014), Nolan returns to the silver screen urging people to see his latest blockbuster, Dunkirk (2017), in its intended 70mm format (it’s for the experience, not the fact that it’s double the price of a normal movie ticket, right?). Fortunately for me, I had the pleasure of being 15 minutes away from a theater in the East Village playing Dunkirk in 70mm – so I did just that.
Dunkirk is a war film based on the true story of British and French soldiers in WWII stranded on a beach, with German enemies surrounding them on land, sea, and air. It’s a bleak plot that stacks the odds drastically against the protagonists from the get-go. Nolan drops us into this situation with little to absolutely no background as to how we got here, and for the next hour and 40 minutes, we follow different groups of characters who are attempting to escape / rescue those who need escaping / protect those who need escaping.
Immediately, what pulls you into Dunkirk is the fact that time has run out for these soldiers. The enemy surrounds them and bombs boats/shorelines at random and you never know who’s going to be hit next. The intensity mainly comes from Director of Photography Hoyte Van Hoytema’s camerawork coupled with a deafening score from Hans Zimmer. The movie is gorgeous to look at, there’s no denying it. Having the pleasure of seeing a 70mm print in a theater that has been standing since 1926 certainly added to this experience – an experience moviegoers don’t come across anymore since almost every chain movie theater tries to resemble your living room. I found my head turning to follow planes’ movements and felt claustrophobic during scenes of soldiers drowning or trying not to drown; but after the fourth drowning sequence in a row, it gets kind of repetitive. The sound design is certainly of note. Planes coming in hot sound as terrifying as I’m sure they were during the events of Dunkirk. The explosions are deafening and Hans Zimmer’s score tightens a knot in your stomach as you realize, like everyone else, that time is not on these soldiers’ side. The first time a gun went off in this movie I jumped out of my seat, and at the second and the third shots I was jumping in my seat as well. Watching soldiers run with their backs to the camera with gunfire coming at them from all directions makes for a tense scene and it drops you right in the action with these soldiers, but that is my main gripe with this movie: These are soldiers, not characters. I go to the movies to see characters.
A movie can be as visually remarkable as it wants to be. Nolan and Hoytema know their way around a camera, and I’ve never seen a dogfight between three planes filmed more spectacularly (it certainly gives Top Gun (1986) a run for its money). But a good-looking movie doesn’t make up for a lack of continuity or story or characters to root for in general. There are soldiers in this movie, pilots, and civilians. Some are in peril and some are there to help. I honestly could not tell you a single person’s name in this movie – it’s just a bunch of white dudes with the same brown/black hair and two guys with blonde-ish hair. I think there are five women in this movie and two of them have a line of dialogue each. I spent more time trying to figure out who was who and a lot of the time I thought the same person was two different people.
I can understand why people are praising Nolan for dropping audiences in a war movie that is, at its core, about survival and it should not matter who’s who because at the end of the day everyone has the same common goal: Survive. However, Nolan forgets that ultimately, this is also a movie. Movies need to pull audiences in and give them someone or something to root for, and “survival” is far too vague. You can have a film that lacks dialogue, such as this, and still give us a protagonist or ensemble worth rooting for. The only people I rooted for in this movie were Mark Rylance and his family, and Tom Hardy because he’s Tom Hardy flying a plane for an hour and a half – how is that not supposed to be worth rooting for? But liking a character because he’s played by Tom Hardy is not a good enough reason to root for him. Hell, put a picture of Hardy’s wife and newborn daughter in his cockpit next to the fuel gauge and you suddenly have a character who is relatable – someone fighting for something or fighting to get back to something. I couldn’t grab onto anyone from this movie because it seemed like Nolan took the first two acts of this film and chopped them off just to jump to the climax.
The editing of this movie didn’t help either. Dunkirk takes place over three different timelines covering the same event and you end up seeing a lot of the same situation from different angles. Scenes also cut from day time to night time and then back to day – which makes sense because day comes after night; but I think given the short period of time this movie takes place in, the mixed and matched timeline was doomed from the beginning. Since most of the characters and almost all of the ships look the same, I had no idea if I had seen this boat sink or not two scenes earlier. I’ve seen movies jump around a timeline before, and I’ve seen it done right. This was not the case and to be quite frank, I thought the editing of this movie was sloppy and in-cohesive.
Dunkirk is a realistic war film in the same vein as The Thin Red Line (1998), vs. a gratuitous gore-fest like Saving Private Ryan (1998) or Hacksaw Ridge (2016), but just because it’s realistic doesn’t make it entertaining. There are scenes in this movie that are boring because nothing is happening and there is no dialogue to connect and relate to characters. Realism doesn’t always translate well on the screen. Take my life for example: I lead a very realistic life. I scramble for rent at the end of every month and I spend my time procrastinating by swiping on Bumble and scrolling through my Instagram. Would you want to watch that movie? Neither would I.
All of this leads me to believe that Nolan set out just to make a love letter to the British military by taking an act of heroism no one has covered before in Hollywood (that I know of). And of course he can do this because Warner Bros. will write him a blank check and the movie will make its money back this weekend, effectively doing its job because film is a business like anything else these days. I have no doubt that whoever adored Dunkirk is not wrong. It is a masterful display of visual storytelling that drops you into a story of survival with people you don’t even know – similar to how these soldiers felt interacting with each other. I really admire Nolan’s efforts to show that war is indeed Hell while still maintaining a PG-13 rating. What this boils down to for me is a matter of differing opinions and what I want to see when I go to the movies. I enjoy films where characters drive the story vs. story driving the story.
Dunkirk is a departure for Christopher Nolan from his previous work, while at the same time it isn’t. It’s wonderful to look at and Hans Zimmer’s score tightens your stomach as you feel the clock running out. However, Nolan needs to understand that great visuals and a shuffled timeline do not guarantee you a “game changing” film, especially when more than half of your filmography is just that. Nolan has shown he can tackle comic books, war, and sci-fi; but using time as a motif is getting drastically old and directing The Dark Knight (2008) does not give you a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card for the rest of your career.