DUNKIRK Does Not Have a Lot to Say

It looks pretty but doesn't have a lot on its mind

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.

  • Yeah, I don’t think I’ll make the theatre for this one…

    • Andrew Clark

      Check my post, but it demands to be seen in a theater if you plan on seeing it at all.

  • ElWaldorf

    This is why I’m concern when I see this without the IMAX (I will be seeing it in 70mm because my local theater supports it), it’s going to be all flash and no substance.

    • Allen

      Don’t just take my word for it obviously, but I’ve spent more time in this specific genre than most and I’d say this is a lesser WWII movie. It’s not about genre conventions or anything like that, it’s about the thought and feeling the director imbues in it and this was, for me, nothing but sterile spectacle. I made this review intentionally spoiler free but there are some specific story and editing choices that can only be described as baffling and it marginalizes the characters in a way that’s never successfully worked for me in any film. And that’s all I can do, use my frame of reference to discuss and interpret it.

  • Andrew Clark

    “Another concern with the film is that the characters are for the most part anonymous and interchangeable”

    This felt like a very purposeful decision to not only play to Nolan’s strengths (he’s not a real people person) but also to represent how the experience of these men was widespread and interchangeable. They weren’t individuals anymore, they were tired soldiers trying to make their way home and survive.

    I appreciate where you’re coming from, but I think looking for some semiotic value beyond the representation of a great event will of course leave you cold. He’s not trying to make sweeping statements about war or politics…rather he’s telling stories of what men do when faced with adversity. I don’t think this even qualifies as a war movie, to be honest. A retreat movie, let’s say.

    Moving on, I thought this was a must-see in theaters. One of those movies that really demands and fulfills your expectations for what it feels like to be at the movies. I have a 70mm IMAX theater in New York, though, so I know that is sadly not how everyone gets to see it.

    • Andrew Clark

      Amendment to clarify:

      I get what you expected to have happen or shown in this movie, but Nolan wasn’t trying to show those things, so criticizing the movie for not doing something it wasn’t trying to do feels off to me.

      • Allen

        The spectacle was well done and if that was all he aspired to then he did his job well. My point simply is that there’s not a lot of “there” there. It’s a shallow film that fails to make any real commentary on men in dark times because we have no frame of reference to see how the events impacted them because we don’t know WHO they are.

        • Andrew Clark

          They’re me. They’re you. They’re us. They’re anybody who has been through hell and is trying to live just another moment. You don’t need a character’s life story to understand who they are. We see through their behavior. I’ll repeat: the way Tom sticks around, knowing he’ll run out of fuel. The way Peter lies to Cillian. The way Rylance refuses to give in to despair despite losing his son three weeks into the war.

    • Allen

      I think my greater issue is I’m not really sure why Nolan felt he needed to make this movie if he had nothing to truly say from a thematic or political standpoint about the events. If your impetus is nothing beyond, “Look what the British did, huzzah” I’d much rather have someone with a real perspective tell the story.

      • Andrew Clark

        He wanted to make a movie about heroism. Not heroism like good versus evil, or Nazis versus the British, or anything esoteric like that. He wanted to make a movie about moments of heroism, large and small, over this brief period of time. The people who rose to the occasion, the ones who didn’t. And not cast judgement on the ones who didn’t but also to celebrate the ones who did.

        I don’t think movies have to live and breathe on political stances or anything of that nature. The best war movies are always about individuals. Which I know rubs up against the soldiers being interchangeable, but they’re also representing lots of people. Giving prevalence to one over another ignores that they were all there together.

        It’s little moments like Hardy choosing to stay behind even knowing he will run out of fuel, or the French soldier opening the door, or Rylance’s son lying to Cullian Murphy.

  • jeves23

    It’s unfortunate that it didn’t work for you Allen, as I thought it was a fantastic film. But, I do think that it is mis-categorized as a war film. It is more of a survival thriller, concerned with the impending death that hangs over us all, and our constant attempts to outrun it. It is a visceral, experiential film, and is not about the politics of the war or of the rescue; it is instead about the fight for survival, the fight to do right in the face of adversity, the fight to carry on against insurmountable odds. I don’t think it needs to be about anything more than that to be successful.
    The film is also very purposefully structured, and is a film that is concerned with particular aspects of the craft of filmmaking (and I disagree on the timeline thing – I loved it and thought it worked great) which lend themselves to the specific narrative Nolan was crafting. There is certainly another, very different film to be made about Dunkirk, but I think that the film succeeds very well with what was intended.

    If what was intended isn’t your thing, I can respect and understand that.