There are two possible Christopher Nolan films. In his great films (Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception) Nolan starts with a central idea and allows everything to build from it. In his not so great films (Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises) Nolan piles as much as he can into the film to hide the fact that he doesn’t have a core to build from. Sometimes it’s still enjoyable due to the characters (like Rises) but I still leave the film missing something.
Dunkirk had the potential to fall into either category. It’s a very complicated narrative with some thin characters. But it’s also built on a great attention to detail that really captivated me. Despite knowing nothing about the characters, I still felt a deep connection with them.
Dunkirk is about the evacuation of Dunkirk. (Shocking, I know.) The film is separated into three separate stories – land, air, and sea. On land, soldiers try to evacuate France as the Nazis close in. In the air, members of the Royal Air Force try to protect the Navy ships full of soldiers from Dunkirk. On the sea, civilian sailboats sail to Dunkirk to support the Royal Navy as they ferry soldiers back after Germany destroys many naval ships.
What’s amazing is how Nolan wanted to create a spectacle on film. Dunkirk is the most amazing looking and amazing sounding film I’ve seen in a while. I don’t care how much you have to pay for a ticket. You owe it to yourself to see Dunkirk on the biggest screen you can.
It’s not just about the amazing visuals. It’s about the sense that you’re actually in Dunkirk with the troops, or that you’re on a ship that’s being torpedoed. There’s no sense of the larger battle. We never see a single German soldier nor do we get a sense of why Dunkirk is so strategically important.
Unfortunately, this leads to some bad characterization. I cannot name a single character from the film without checking IMDB nor can I identify a stand out performance. Everyone is never onscreen long enough for them to stand up for me. The point, I guess, is that each of these individuals were only in the background of the later conflict. This isn’t a film about intimacy. And the actors never challenge themselves in playing these characters. It’s reminiscent of old war epics from the 1950s. That sounds like a compliment, but think of how many performances from The Longest Day stand out to you.
Even though the acting is a tad wooden, it works for the film. The characters are running on base emotion – confusion, desperation, and anger. Unlike Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, no one bothers to philosophize about the war. That’s a conversation that’s worked for many films. But it wouldn’t work for Dunkirk. This tone works for this film because I get a greater emotional connection with the characters.
My personal favorite story was the “sea,” which saw boat owner Mr. Dawson traveling with his son and another boy to Dunkirk to rescue the troops. They find a sailor who survived a German attack. It’s a microcosm of every war film, with conflicting interests causing tragedy. And the actors were playing archetypes. Dawson was committed to duty while the soldier was in shock over seeing his friends die.
I also enjoyed a scene on “land” in which a bunch of soldiers trying to escape in a shipwrecked boat are threatened by Germans using the boat for target practice and piercing the hull. It’s a tense scene out of a horror film, as the soldier try to remain calm as stray bullets threaten them. We see the bullet holes form on the side of the ship and hear the silence in the score. (There practically is no score, except for a ticking stop watch that permeates through every scene.)
That last scene shows the intimacy in Dunkirk. It’s a simple scene shot in a grand way that really made me feel like I was there. Nolan is a director that still cares about the craft. He can take seemingly flimsy material and turn it into something incredible.
Dunkirk is an experience that few films are willing to try anymore. It’s not about the characters. To paraphrase Casablanca, their problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. It’s about our sharing their experience. Dunkirk is one of the most effective war films to come along in quite some time.