Dunkirk is the latest by the infinitely popular and famed auteur Christopher Nolan and, for many reasons, it clearly sticks out from the rest of his filmography. While just as ambitious as his previous projects, its tight runtime, de-emphasis on characters, and nonfiction subject matter are all new territory for the director. With Dunkirk, he brings his typical masterful presentation to the theater of WWII. But, while the film looks and sounds just as masterful as the rest of his filmography, it has none of the great writing and characters he made his name on and even feels pedestrian at times.
Dunkirk tells the story of the eponymous evacuation in which 300,000 British, French, Belgian, and Canadian troops were rescued. After the complete military failure in France to defend against the incoming blitzkrieg, 400,000 allied soldiers were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk with little hope of survival. In typical Nolan fashion, he’s chosen to stray from standard film structure, splitting Dunkirk into three perspectives; land, sea, and air. This gives him an organic reason to thematically explore the entirety of the event. With this leeway, he’s able to paint a more complete picture of the evacuation, giving audiences substantially more insight than if they were tied to one soldier’s point of view. Although the structure is relatively unique and allows for a more complete picture of the event, it’s ultimately unnecessary. Unlike Nolan’s previous films, structure does not exist to serve the story in any significant way. Instead, it feels like a theatrical compromise to pace the story more suitably.
He uses these perspectives to treat viewers to the visual experience of the year. Shot entirely on film, Dunkirk is almost completely void of CGI, making extensive use of real props. While Nolan always had an eye for cinematography, his work on Dunkirk with DP Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Her, Let the Right One In) makes for far and away the most tactile and genuine looking film in his filmography. Lighting is also used impeccably, especially in the aircraft sequences with Tom Hardy, as contrast between the dark ocean and bright sky is potent. Dunkirk also employs intense and volatile sound design. More than the visuals, sound effects present danger; from the crack of rifles to the creaking of sinking destroyers. Frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer contributes another score which is much more subdued than the sometimes overbearing bass of his previous work (Inception), which lets the environment communicate danger in a much more effective way. An immense amount of work has gone into immersion in Dunkirk and it all feels completely authentic.
It’s very apparent that Dunkirk is a film that is crafted precisely the way it was meant to be. It’s about the evacuation and the struggle for survival that the soldiers on the beach went through and the film is filled with compelling, harrowing, and terrifying moments. From airdropped leaflets revealing a terrible truth to soldiers walking into the ocean to avoid their fate at the hands of the enemy, the film is foreboding and intimate. Each individual moment works well, but when strung into feature length, the result is a bit underwhelming. This is entirely due to the absence of any real characters. There is little to no effort put into establishing the handful of protagonists as interesting characters. We never know who these people are, where they came from, or what their futures are. There’s extremely minimal dialogue, and, when there is, the sound mixing and thick accents of the characters make it difficult to understand what is being said. While I understand the decision to completely sidestep war film cliches, without knowing these characters, Dunkirk lacks any sort of emotional center. Thus, I found myself generally apathetic when their lives were in danger. Without characters to connect with, I was ultimately left mildly bored for the majority of the film. The PG-13 rating doesn’t help create empathy and emotion either. Despite a few moments of genuine terror, the distinct lack of visceral imagery renders it a less intense experience than its WWII contemporaries.
Christopher Nolan is one of the great filmmakers of the 21st century, but Dunkirk is not one of his better films. While visually and sonically it’s arguably the best experience at the theater you’ll have this year, without characters, it ultimately feels a bit hollow and commercial. There are tons of directors in Hollywood who can do spectacle filmmaking. Nolan is great because he can balance a spectacle with some great writing and interesting characters. Although Dunkirk is a product of Nolan’s visions, some of his choices render it monotonous.