It’s been an amazing run of excellence for writer/director Christopher Nolan. Undoubtedly one of the twenty-first century’s most accomplished and groundbreaking auteurs, few can compete with his ability to deliver stunning visuals and thought-provoking, challenging narratives. Unfortunately, Dunkirk only delivers on the visuals, and that’s simply not enough if you’re going to play ball in the stacked war genre. The film is a strangely stoic experience. It feels all too real, but it’s all just out of arm’s reach. Given little context and even less character arc, Dunkirk emerges as an emotionally hollow exercise in wartime spectacle.
Told in four non-linear story lines, the film opens with allied forces from Belgium, Britain, and France forced out of Dunkirk and on to its expansive beaches awaiting rescue. We meet Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a British soldier that escapes the front lines and befriends another soldier named Gibson (Aneurin Barnard). Knowing that their wait to be rescued will be long and grueling (enemy aircraft are bombing the beach in regular intervals), the two hatch a plan to transport an injured soldier to one of the warships and hitch a ride home with his priority. That does not go as swimmingly as planned. There’s also Farrier (Hardy), one of only a handful of allied pilots tasked with defending the men on the beach until they’re rescued. Thoroughly outnumbered and watching his fuel gauge diminish, he must find a way to stay in the air. A third story thread follows Mr. Dawson (Rylance) and his sons as they rescue the survivor of a submarine attack (Murphy) and prepare for more as their vessel makes its way towards Dunkirk. Finally, Commander Bolton (Branagh) and his officers attempt to strategize the most efficient way to get their soldiers off the beach with limited resources.
Like all of Nolan’s work, Dunkirk is a magnificent achievement from a technical perspective. This holds especially true for everyone involved in the sound department. Making full use of the 360 degree soundscape, bullets come out of nowhere, bombs throttle the piers on which soldiers stand, and the maniacal thrust of enemy aircraft is imprinted on our eardrums. As a spare, visceral war-is-hell experience, it works topically. However, Dunkirk is never fully realized as an involving and emotionally taxing depiction of a larger-than-life, mortality-testing event. I knew trouble was on the horizon when a young boy is accidentally wounded and I felt nothing. None of the characters are fleshed-out beyond their base role in the war and are fairly stock types otherwise. So we watch as terrible things happen, acknowledge as much, and move on. It never truly elicits an impassioned response. That’s despite the overbearing use of Hans Zimmer’s uncharacteristically grating score, which has all the subtlety of a dentist’s drill filling a cavity.
Nolan has certainly dealt with complaints of emotional distance in his films before. While I’ve, for the most part, not found that to be the case (Inception and Interstellar both deliver emotional gut punches even when more obvious payoffs were avoided), Dunkirk is his first film in which it palpably worsens the experience. Perhaps it’s the legacy of greatness the war genre has offered over the decades. Perhaps it’s a simple miscalculation on Nolan’s part to expect us to get heavily invested in a technologically sound but generic-in-all-other-respects narrative. Dunkirk stands as the first true disappointment of Nolan’s illustrious career.
Studio: Warner Bros.
Length: 106 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for intense war experience and some language.
Theatrical Release: July 21, 2017
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Harry Styles