Christopher Nolan's Bold War Film: Dunkirk Review

Christopher Nolan continues to challenge himself by diving into yet another genre of film he has yet to tackle in his impressive career: the war film. Dunkirk is director Christopher Nolan's 10th movie and is set during World War II in 1940. On the beaches of Dunkirk, France, overlooking the English Channel, nearly 400,000 British and Allied Soldiers await evacuation to Britain as they are surrounded by German forces on land, in the air, and at sea. Based on a true story, Dunkirk follows several characters in their desperate attempts to survive German dive-bombers and U-boats, including a handful of Soldiers on the beach, the Naval commander overseeing the evacuation, a pair of British Royal Air Force Spitfire pilots, and a man and his sons who, along with many other civilians from the homeland, make the journey across the Channel to Dunkirk to assist in the evacuation of their Soldiers. 

I am an enormous fan of Christopher Nolan's body of work; Memento is a blind-blowing masterclass in plot structure manipulation in order to reflect the psyche and mental state of its protagonist, The Dark Knight Trilogy revolutionized the superhero film in terms of what it can accomplish in both spectacle and emotional and moral depth and helped establish the "Golden Age of Superhero Movies," and Inception combined awe-inspiring visual innovation with existential science-fiction concepts that have permeated into modern pop-culture in the tradition of 1999's The Matrix. Even seemingly underwhelming yet truly brilliant films like The Prestige are criminally under-rated by the general public. Needless to say, I think Christopher Nolan has been one of the most talented, technically proficient, and imaginative directors and storytellers working in the last 15+ years. Naturally, Dunkirk was one of my most anticipated movies ever since it was announced a few years ago. I mean, with everything else he's done up to this point, the math adds up to this being the best, most inventive war movie ever made, right? 

But is Dunkirk the game-changing war film that everyone, including myself, expected from Nolan? 

In a word, no.

On the bright side, this fact shatters any potential perception that I'm just a blind "Nolanite" or Nolan fanboy who just eats up anything he craps out with vigorous aplomb. In case anyone isn't familiar with what the heck I'm talking about (aside from the "vigorous aplomb" part), there are groups of people on the internets who, in order to counter the uprising of overwhelming support and praise of Christopher Nolan movies over the years, have voiced their disdain for Nolan movies and have labeled anyone who likes his stuff as Nolanites, or essentially sheep who can't think for themselves and are just drinking the proverbially Kool-Aid that is Christopher Nolan's filmography. My counter-point to these "haters," as the kids say these days, is that just because a guy is pitching a perfect game (that's a sports reference! :D), it doesn't mean that you're a mindless schmuck for liking what he's got. Anyway, let's get back on track. 

I'll start with what I liked about this film. First off, the first 30-40 minutes of this film are breathtaking in so many ways. There's no drawn out prelude or set up that tell you exactly where you are, why you're there, what's at stake, or who is going to be impacted by the outcomes that are about to unfold. From the first minute of the movie, the audience is placed in the midst of a shoot out and, ultimately, a fight for survival. The movie very much starts in Medias Res and barely let's up until the final credits. The film's score, underscored with a ticking-time clock, combined with the sweeping visual of these Soldiers standing along the shores of Dunkirk awaiting either their rescue or their imminent demise, the heart-dropping screeches of the German dive bombers as they make bombing and strafing runs along the beach and the pier, and the desperate looks on the faces of the Soldiers and their frantic shots from their rifles as they exhaust all options in this cruel game of survival, all combine to create a legitimate sense of dread and real-life horror in the viewer as these events occur. As far as war-based action scenes, the opening half hour of this film is on par with the Normandy invasion in Saving Private Ryan and the Bin Laden compound infiltration scene in Zero Dark Thirty when it comes to hair-raising suspense and showcasing the horrors of war. 

Another brilliant aspect of this film was what I like to call "Large Scale Claustrophobia." Dunkirk truly does present a grand sweeping spectacle that somehow exudes a breathless sensation of being trapped, no matter the setting or the situation. As I vaguely alluded to when I gave the synopsis for the movie, Dunkirk is broken down into three settings, or arenas, if you will: land, air, and sea. You have the 400,000 Soldiers on the beach, a group of Royal Air Force pilots patrolling the skies, and a group of people trying to escape Dunkirk and a civilian boat making its way on the English Channel toward them and the rest of the Soldiers. However, a common thread, or theme, that is consistent throughout the film in all three of these settings is that every character a) is trapped in a very confined area with no tangible means of escape, and b) they are further constrained not only by physical space, but also by the inevitable and incessant marching of time. The characters on land are confined to a single beach and a narrow pier, surrounded by a perimeter of German tanks and Luftwaffe dive bombers, and the sea. The pilots are confined to the cockpits of their Spitfires as well as the deep abyss of the sea should their planes crash. The civilian boat and the characters attempting to escape on ships are confined to the vulnerable hulls of their vessels amidst U-boat invested waters and bombers from the sky. Furthermore, they are all at the mercy of the limited time they have available to them. It's only a matter of time before the Germans decide to advance their tanks onto the beach and finish off the Allies. It's only a matter of time before the RAF pilots run out of fuel and crash their aircraft into the sea; every minute they spend fighting and saving their brothers in arms, the greater the likelihood of them not making it back safely. It's only a matter of time until the civilian boat gets sunk or, perhaps even worse, arrives at Dunkirk only to find out it's too late and all is lost. It's fascinating to see how each of these three settings combine to generate an over-arching sensation of "Large Scale Claustrophobia" for all the film's characters. 

Speaking of the film's characters, Dunkirk is filled to the conceptual brim with great performances. With actors like Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles (wait, what?!), and newcomer Fionn Whitehead leading the charge, there really isn't a weak performance to be found in this impressive cast. Despite my incredulousness at the fact that some One Direction pretty boy found his way onto the set of a dramatic Christopher Nolan production, Styles actually did an admirable job in the role he was given. However, while the performances were solid all around, I will say that the characters themselves in this movie were weak in that they were given very little to do in terms of character development. They had plenty to do and deal with from an action standpoint, but in terms of intriguing dialogue, conflicting and changing motivations, moral conflicts, and personal stakes created from interesting characterizations, the pickings were rather slim in this script. The story, instead, focused on immersing the audience in a particular moment in history that defined 300,000 plus people's lives and an entire nation through grand spectacle and suspenseful action. This is all well and good, but to ignore the characters and their thoughts, values, who they are, and why it's important to them, and by extension to us, to get off that beach seemed to be an unwise choice from a storytelling perspective. I don't even know anyone's name in this movie, for goodness sake!

Does that mean Dunkirk needed to fall prey to worn out war movie tropes like the ol' "Brooklyn Soldier #2 saying 'When I get home, I'm gonna...'" bit, or the the classic "My wife gave birth today; it's a baby boy!" line, right before the new father tragically dies in the next scene? No, but in order for me to attach the visceral sense of dread that the movie excellently generates to anything meaningful, I need something that allows me to care for the characters undergoing peril and hardship. That's what separates a motion picture from a documentary, however superb that documentary may be. 

My other main gripe with this flick is the use of nonlinear plot structure. It took me about halfway through the movie to realize that a scene I was watching had already happened about 20 minutes prior, but instead of seeing it from the perspective of the pilots, it was from the Mark Rylance's character's point of view on the boat. Knowing Nolan's films pretty well, I know that fluid timelines and nonlinear storytelling is right in his wheel-house as a director. The difference is that in most of his other movies in which he employs this technique, he has a very deliberate reason for doing it. Whether it's to withhold certain information from the audience until just the right moment or to completely re-contextualize a previous scene and change the entire meaning of the movie, Nolan is a master when it comes to playing with time in his movies. In Dunkirk, however, it just didn't accomplish anything for me. It seemed as though he felt obligated to do it for Dunkirk just because he has done it so many other times and that's just what he does. The result was a muddled plot that left me a bit confused at times, and not in a good way. It just disrupted the whole flow of events for me and took me out of the movie for a little while. If the movie had played out more chronologically, I think the tension and suspense that it had already built throughout would have been more intensified and satisfying. 

Don't let these script and plot issues distract you from the fact that this is a beautifully made war film that captures a moment in the history of World War II of which I had no prior knowledge. Dunkirk provides an inspiring snapshot of what unwavering patriotism, duty to a cause greater than oneself, and commitment to your fellow man can accomplish in the face of insurmountable odds. 

This is an expertly crafted war film from a director who has a tremendous respect both for the medium as well as the historical events he portrays. Thrilling from start to finish, Dunkirk unfortunately suffers from a confusing and, ultimately, misguided plot structure that detract from the tremendous action sequences it displays and the suspense it creates. It also struggles with generating tangible character development, or characterization of any kind, really. Luckily, the true to life situation created and the action depicted in the film fully immerses the viewer in the events of Dunkirk with an unmistakable sense of realism that, at the very least, allows the viewer to understand the desperation, fear and triumph felt by its characters. Although far from perfect, Dunkirk proves that Christopher Nolan continues to impress and amaze audiences with a diverse repertoire of filmmaking techniques and tools few filmmakers possess. I'd definitely recommend seeing this film in theaters if you get the chance. 

My score: 7.2/10