Dunkirk is not going to leave you feeling hopeful. It’s a brutal and riveting putting viewers into the wartime experience like few films before it. That makes Dunkirk one of the more challenging films to watch. This isn’t the typical war film where you can watch from a detached perspective on the sidelines. You’re actually on the (battle)field.
Director/Writer Christopher Nolan wants viewers to experience the terror of bullets whizzing by, the reverberations of bombs exploding on the beachhead and the constant fear that every second could be their last. It is a stunning and memorable accomplishment.
To create this war is hell environment, Nolan ditches the traditional narrative set up. A brief summary explains Belgium, British and French troops are overrun by the German army and preparing for a wholesale evacuation. Historically, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill used Dunkirk as a rallying point, which proved an important moral victory in the overall conflict.
Nolan doesn’t offer that type of insight however. For the film, Dunkirk embodies what this moment was for those who against all odds, managed to survive it. The story is told from three perspectives with characters based in land, sea and air.
Dunkirk’s biggest flaw is the lack of character development. This is an intentional choice by Nolan, but it does affect the investment in characters whose name was mentioned in brief interactions. Maybe to avoid falling into cliché territory, Nolan avoided moments with troops pining for the comforts of home, but without anything to latch on to, the characters felt like disposable cannon fodder.
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Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) is the closest Dunkirk has to a main character. His division is quickly wiped out and he spends the bulk of the film desperately trying to stay alive. Whether gunfire on the streets, bombs on the beach or shot up rescue boats, the odds are never in Tommy’s favor.
Like most of the cast, Whitehead doesn’t have a ton of dialogue. There’s long stretches where Tommy doesn’t speak, but Whitehead is up to the task conveying that uncertainty and terror with great expressions and body language. Along the way he meets up with fellow soldiers, including One Direction’s Harry Styles in his acting debut. Styles stands out by not standing out and looking out of place in this serious period piece.
The sea storyline focuses on Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies) and his son (Tom Glynn-Carney), as they set off to help retrieve British soldiers in their civilian boat. Along the way, they encounter a soldier (Cillian Murphy) who wants to avoid returning to Dunkirk at all costs. Of the subplots, this is the strongest thanks to some surprising twists and performances from Murphy, Rylance and Glynn-Carney.
Tom Hardy is the focal point of the third perspective as a pilot trying to aid the retreat effort. This role is almost a waste of Hardy’s talent as he has few lines and has little to do besides turn and pivot in a cramped cockpit. The aerial dogfights aren’t as engaging as Nolan intends and quickly become repetitive. Kenneth Branagh also feels wasted as Bolton, the commander leading the evacuation effort.
Commendably, Nolan went old school in shooting using props for soldiers and vehicles instead of the CGI copy machine. Nolan’s storytelling gets confusing thanks to the inter-cutting of the three subplots and their various time frames. Hans Zimmer’s score is bombastic and impressively present as usual. The sound is necessary in creating this war mood and is going to be a major reason why viewing it in IMAX is recommended.
Nolan doesn’t make the traditional war movie here as Dunkirk is more nuanced and layered. I appreciated and liked a lot of what Nolan accomplished, but it was too impersonal and distant to fully love.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment