There aren’t a lot of directors whose films are must-watch material. There are even fewer whose movies feel like events. Christopher Nolan is one filmmaker who falls into both of these categories. Maybe it’s because he almost always makes great movies—and his few misfires are still, at worst, simply okay—or because he displays a technical mastery that few can boast, but a Christopher Nolan film is a special event. So, here we have Dunkirk, which is Nolan’s WWII movie.
The film is split into three perspectives that take place at different points in time and have been edited together in hopes of making them feel thematically, narratively, and dramatically coherent. The first, which we’re told lasts a week, takes place on the beach of Dunkirk and follows some soldiers as they try to figure out a way to get off the beach. The enemy has them pinned down, and they’ve got hundreds of thousands of soldiers who need to be evacuated. Our second perspective follows a civilian vessel as it heads to the beach to help the evacuation process. It takes place over the course of a day. The final perspective is that of a couple of pilots who are tasked with shooting down enemy planes. It’s given an hour.
There isn’t a lot of dialogue and most of the characters aren’t even given names. Dunkirk wants to immerse us in its setting, make us feel like we’re a part of each one of these separate stories, and essentially just act as a witness to the events that happen. It’s like a fictionalized documentary, in a way. It’s not interested in narrative or in giving us strong or interesting characters. It just wants to show us what happened.
That decision is both a strength and weakness. On one hand, it makes Dunkirk feel very much unlike most war movies that are out there. The non-linear storytelling makes the film a bit of a puzzle that has to work itself out, too, although I don’t know if it does anything more than allow the three perspectives to be told at once. It doesn’t strengthen any of them, and it also keeps us from getting fully immersed as we keep jumping back and forth.
Dunkirk is a different take on a war movie, and while I don’t think it’s wholly successful, it’s good enough to be worth a watch.
The bigger problem, though, is that the movie keeps us at arm’s length to all of the characters and doesn’t give them much, well, character to speak of. We don’t even get names for the most part. This results in a film where we can only care on a big scale, for all the soldiers, and not for any of the individuals. Our emotional involvement is going to be minimal, as a result. Couple that with the aforementioned nonlinear storytelling that keeps pulling us out of the film’s world and reminding us that we’re watching a movie, and it’s tough to even come close to being immersed within Dunkirk.
On a technical level, Dunkirk is out-of-this-world fantastic. The cinematography is great—see it in 70mm IMAX if you’re able, and that’s coming from someone who dislikes IMAX—although the constantly changing aspect ratios further hinder our ability to be immersed. Almost better than the visuals, though, are the sounds, which are unbelievable. The mixing is tremendous and Hans Zimmer‘s score is amazing. I don’t think Dunkirk deserves too many Oscar nominations, but it should get some technical ones.
It also has some fantastic acting. Veteran actors like Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Kenneth Branagh stand out in important roles, while relative newcomers like Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan, and Harry Styles—yes, that Harry Styles—shine in their roles, too. Even without much character to flesh out, the acting is great.
Dunkirk doesn’t tell a particularly engrossing story, and its characters leave a lot to be desired. We’re asked to care about their plight as a whole instead of on an individual basis (despite following specific people) and, because of the film’s arm’s-reach approach to storytelling and the constant shift in perspective, it doesn’t stir the emotions. It’s very impressive on a technical level and its acting is great, but it leaves one coming away feeling cold and uninvolved. It’s moderately thrilling and looks and sounds amazing. Dunkirk is a different take on a war movie, and while I don’t think it’s wholly successful, it’s good enough to be worth a watch.
Conclusion: Dunkirk suffers on a narrative and character level but is still successful enough to be worthwhile.
Recommendation: If have the means, see Dunkirk in 70mm IMAX. If you don’t? It’ll play fine elsewhere. Just not on your phone.