MOVIE REVIEW: Dunkirk
DUNKIRK-- 3 STARS
Director Christopher Nolan recently addressed critics who called his films “emotionless” by likening his films to Rorschach tests with freedom for audiences to interpret each their own way. I don’t know what films those so-called “critics” watched. They must have missed the sharp revenge of Memento, the stirring heroic feels of his Batman trilogy, the suspenseful mental weight of Inception, and the familial anguish of Interstellar. Emotionless, my ass.
That said, and it pains me to say this, Dunkirk has the flaws to fan those flames and keep that label hovering around Christopher Nolan. As technically proficient and respectful to history as Dunkirk is, no substantial human anchors of emotion emerge in this film that wants to be seen as an inspiring rescue saga before a war film or historical epic. The totems of fear and survival are ever-present, but there are no magnetic characters to carry those existential burdens. It is a critical flaw in an otherwise astounding dramatic thriller.
It’s been 10 years since Joe Wright’s Atonement and 59 years since Leslie Norman’s Dunkirk when it comes to cinema presenting a silver screen tale from the ten-day-long 1940 Operation Dynamo World War II storybook set in the French city whose name translates to “church in the dunes.” The encyclopedia links can fill you in on the history and knowing the basics will greatly aid in appreciating and absorbing Nolan’s film. Put the study time in.
Dunkirk presents its history by land, sea, and air, and it wouldn’t be a Nolan film without the narrative bending its linearity into an overlapping Mobius strip. Over 400,000 British and French soldiers are trapped in an oceanfront siege by the advancing German forces. Leading our point of view among the troops is Tommy, played by Fionn Whitehead in his feature debut. The logistical outlook for retreat and evacuation is grim as observed by the top brass (Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy). The tides and sandbars make the beaches too shallow to approach with large vessels, leaving the ones that enter the few remaining piers sitting ducks for submarine torpedoes and aerial bombing from the Luftwaffe. Seeing all transpiring below and staunchly defending the skies are a trio of outnumbered RAF pilots lead by Tom Hardy.
Desperate for help of any kind, the people of Britain respond across the Channel to send over what became known as the “Little Ships of Dunkirk,” over 700 civilian and public boats of all shapes and sizes from yachts to ferries, to enter the conflict, risk their own lives, and rescue their countrymen. The on-deck and at-the-helm perspective for that effort centers on one boat manned by Bridge of Spies Oscar winner Mark Rylance and his two-man teenage crew (newcomer Tom Glynn-Carney and ‘71’s Barry Keoghan). The first survivor they encounter is a shivering PTSD-stricken Cillian Murphy as they steam closer to greater danger.
On all three fronts, this is an ensemble cast of entirely composite characters that go mostly nameless. To manufacture heroic flutters from nondescript archetypes, compelling performances are then needed. It does not help that the three loosely-defined “heroes” of this screen story are comprised of a nearly indistinguishable unknown in Whitehead, the half-dozen lines of dialogue underneath a pilot’s mask from Hardy, and the milquetoast blankness and low register of Rylance. Sure, actions speak louder than words, but none of the three garners palpable appeal or connection as praiseworthy heroes. Hardy comes to closest.
Frankly, it is difficult to make an engaging historical epic worthy of inspiring audience investment without someone they can go home and Google to learn more about. Lawrence of Arabia has a real T.E. Lawrence. Braveheart has a real William Wallace. Those are anchors and Dunkirk lacks them, which is unfortunate given the massive true story being told. If you need a real story from the Battle of Dunkirk to marvel at, look up the Sundowner yacht. If want a film filled with nonspecific composite characters with wondrously greater performances that build anchors, go revisit Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. That’s where you’ll find superior examples of resonance from both fact and fiction.
Piling on, Dunkirk’s Mobius strip of time loops does not do the lack of performance resonance any favors. The off-kilter pace steals focus and makes what should be standout peaks repetitive moments instead. The onus there falls on Nolan’s written treatment and the wayward editing of his longtime collaborator Lee Smith. Parts of this film are a mess to track.
What greatly overcomes these failings are Dunkirk’s incomparable production value and technical prowess. Christopher Nolan has long had refined taste. He is a ardent student of grand moviemaking craft and a purveying purist of traditional celluloid film. The period detail is off the charts and Nolan employed a David Lean-level fleet of costumed extras in the thousands. The director cited eleven films that inspired the look and feel of Dunkirk, a primer ranging from 1924’s silent film Greed and the battlefield classic All Quiet on the Western Front all the way to the kinetic energy of Speed and Unstoppable. Dunkirk exudes a range of those styles that are never static and entirely engrossing.
Mood and suspense will never be Nolan’s weaknesses. In a minimalist narrative of very little exposition and dialogue, Hans Zimmer’s throbbingly intense musical score is rapturously overpowering, often acting as a strong solitary voice of heavy breathing within the film. Zimmer’s score is but a piece of the continual audio fury of Dunkirk’s pounding sound palette, edited by Richard Kind and mixed by Mark Weingarten. These were the loudest seat-rattling bullet squibs and bombs I’ve witnessed on screen in a long time.
Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema collaborated with Nolan again to shoot Dunkirk entirely on IMAX and large format 65mm stock. His lens absorbs cramped moments of doom that choke with claustrophobia, wartime vistas of smoke and haze, amphibious seas of white-capped waves, and soaring skies populated by growling aircraft dogfights. The sensory depth and details are pristine in every millisecond of the film. If you must, see this film on the largest and loudest screen you can.
LESSON #1: FIGHTING AGAINST HELPLESSNESS-- Dunkirk has a level of scratching, clawing, and persevering for survival against insurmountable odds and fears. Such initiatives are the reasons people take chances with their lives. Survival is not fair and the moments of challenge and peril are nearly relentless.
LESSON #2: WHEN DELIVERANCE IS NEEDED-- England would have been crippled and defenseless if those nearly half-million men were lost at Dunkirk. The successful evacuation spurred a British rebound in the war, a moment not lost on Prime Minister Winston Churchill in his famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech that followed. The combined rescue efforts of civilian volunteers pulled off what many consider to be a military miracle. Nolan labels it “deliverance” and he’s dead right.
LESSON #3: PUBLIC CITIZENS ARE AN ELEMENT OF HOPE DURING WAR-- The people of England rose to action in patriotic solidarity against adversity. After this incident in history, the term "Dunkirk Spirit" was coined referring to “an attitude of being very strong in a difficult situation and refusing to accept defeat.” Success became possible because the national mindset was united, from the waiting soldiers on those beaches across the sea to the public support waiting and then called to act from home.