War movies are tricky. There is a certain alchemy to nailing them that sometimes seems to exist independent of other genres of film. You don’t want to whitewash the horrors of war but at the same time you don’t want to spend too much time reveling in them (unless you’re Mel Gibson). You need to establish scale while at the same time maintaining a degree of intimacy. You have to balance the need for a clear statement, whether political or about humanity in general, while still maintaining a degree of universality. There aren’t a lot of directors out there who have a great war movie in them. Because of this I try not to judge too harshly when one falls short of greatness. Dunkirk unfortunately falls short.
As the resident war movie buff at Lewton Bus, I was intrigued and concerned when I saw the announcement that Christopher Nolan’s next film would be a WWII thriller staged around the evacuation of Dunkirk. Nolan is a very talented director, but he has a very specific set of shortcomings, shortcomings that made me concerned about his ability to deliver a great film in this genre. His work, while almost always wonderfully shot and composited, often features bland characters and little in the way of genuine emotion, and I sometimes question if he knows what he is trying to say with any given film. I saw many of these shortcomings in Dunkirk, a film that is not bad by any means, but feels well short of what it could have been.
For those requiring some historical background, the evacuation of Dunkirk is considered by historians to be one of the most pivotal moments in the European Theatre of the Second World War. French, British, Canadian, and Belgian forces, numbering in the hundreds of thousands had been chased to the sea by the German war machine and were on the brink of annihilation. Initial attempts to rescue them were unsuccessful, but the combined efforts of the British, French, and Belgian Navies combined with over 800 merchant and civilian vessels conscripted into service managed to evacuate over 300,000 men. The movie Dunkirk focuses in on one of these civilian vessels, a duo of fighter pilots, and a group of young British soldiers, alternating between them to provide different perspectives of the events.
First of all, it is important to acknowledge what the film does right. Dunkirk is a gorgeous film to look at. The cinematography is breathtaking and Nolan uses wide shots to great dramatic effect. The scale of events is never in question and he does a magnificent job changing perspectives and viewpoints to widen the scope. Nolan is a master visualist and it shows in every frame of the film. He also manages to combine these visuals with a ticking clock (often aided by the sound of actual ticking stopwatches) atmosphere that truly ratchets up the tension.
While the visuals in the film are magnificent, the way in which they are edited together leaves much to be desired. In a baffling editorial and structural decision, the story is depicted on three distinct timelines, with each viewpoint having their own. Rather than synch these events up chronologically, Nolan instead chooses to stagger and interweave these timelines in such a way that you find yourself constantly doubling back to events you have already witnessed, resulting in a truly disjointed sense of time that will likely confuse audiences. While all three of the individual stories are well crafted and serve their purpose, these editing decisions make them more difficult to enjoy because the constant backtracking completely stalls out the narrative at times. It results in a film that clocks in at an hour and forty five minutes but feels like it could have easily been streamlined to an hour twenty and came out more coherent.
Another concern with the film is that the characters are for the most part anonymous and interchangeable. Across the entire film there are maybe two characters with what I would call distinct personalities, but concerningly enough I could not tell you their names if you asked. The soldiers on the beach are a massive sea of anonymous brown haired young actors, all giving fine performances, but none contributing anything truly unique and meaningful to the film. And while part of the point is that these men are mostly anonymous to each other, this falls apart if they are in turn anonymous to the audiences. We do not know what these characters want or need because we spend no real time with them. It results in a film where it is hard at times to care what happens to the characters because you are struggling to figure out who it is happening to.
It’s also worth noting that it’s not really easy to tell what, if anything Nolan is trying to say with this film. He said from the outset that he did not want to make a political movie, and in that regard he achieved his goal. One cannot accuse Dunkirk of being political because that would require it to have something to say. It is for the most part thematically inert because it aspires to nothing. I left the theater confused because I honestly was not sure why Nolan wanted to make this film beyond pure nationalism, as perhaps the only political thing it does is utterly marginalize any non-British contributions.
At the end of the day Dunkirk is a fine film. Always beautiful and at times quite thrilling, it is the type of visual triumph that one expects of Christopher Nolan. It is only when one moves beyond the look of the film that you cannot help but find it somewhat lacking.