There are many folks out there talking about Dunkirk as a tour de force of filmmaking. They are speaking of this film as a triumph for war films, and its reviews reflect that. It has a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, a 94 on Metacritic, and currently sits at a whopping 8.8 on IMDB, which would make it one of the 12 best films of all time according to the voters there. So have we been graced with not only one of the best war films of this generation, but one of the greatest films of all time- a triumph of the medium?
Dunkirk is the latest film from the much ballyhooed director Christopher Nolan, and it possesses all of his strengths and all of his weaknesses. If you want films that delivers stellar visuals, then there are few directors that can compete with Nolan. But if you want a chance to explore complex and compelling characters, then Nolan films will not be for you, and if you desire the latter, then Dunkirk will definitely leave you wanting more.
As mentioned above, the strength of this film is its visuals. There are very few films and very few filmmakers who can match the instinct for creating an image the way Nolan can. The strength of these shots are not necessarily in their complexity, but in their sheer scope and ambition. Massive sets that stretch across an entire beach and even an entire sea are the hallmarks of this film. The choreography of the ships and the planes along with all of the soldiers encapsulates the massive size of this event in history. The battles are relatively short, and they are infrequent, but their consequences are still significant. The desperation of the soldiers to get off that accursed beach is ever prevalent.
Nolan does a tremendous job to capture the scale of the situation that so many of the soldiers were trapped in.
Reinforcing the visuals is the score which seems to be constantly increasing the tension for nearly the entire two hour run time of the film. There is not a lot of grandiose music to throughout the film, with Nolan instead opting for a minimal approach that compliments the stunning, yet at times stark visuals nicely. As the chances of survival wane for the characters, the tension from the score amplifies adding to the desperation of every single soldier stuck in that situation.
Now onto the weaknesses. As noted earlier, Nolan is not the most adept at creating compelling characters, and for Dunkirk, he decides to simply avoid any characters at all. Yes there are actors on the screen playing parts, but that does not make a character. There are no arcs in this film; there is no growth or change in any characters on the screen. They may as well not have any names either, as they are never really spoken. In fact, there is hardly any dialogue at all. How are we expected to get to know the characters, to get to know the fear they are experiencing, and to ultimately care about any of them if they do not even speak?
That is not to say that endless dialogue is necessary in order to create a compelling character, but if a character is going to have limited dialogue, then it must have other qualities to make up for it. Every character in Dunkirk is flat and one dimensional, and they never give the audience any reason to care about them.
There is also an issue with how the characters affect what is happening on the screen. Many of them are simply along for the ride and don’t make a difference on what is happening. Kenneth Branagh spends the entire film standing on the end of a pier spouting off a few lines of expository dialogue. Oh, I was mistaken, he does engage in a light jog in order to avoid fire form a German plane. He makes no real decisions and has no real impact on anything that happens in the film; he could have been removed and the film would still function exactly the same.
The only character that truly has significant impact on the actions of the film was Tom Hardy’s. I would put his name here, but it doesn’t matter, as he spends nearly the entire film in his fighter plane saying almost nothing. Sure there are the civilians within the film, but they essentially don’t have names either, so who cares. The older man whose boat is the main civilian vessel within the film spends the entire time spouting off nuggets of wisdom every once in a while. His son and another young man join him on the boat, and the young man suffers a senseless death, but it didn’t really matter as we hardly have any time to get to know him. But at least there were at least a couple of characters who cared about his death. There are other characters who have deaths within the film that mean nothing. After all, why should the audience care, if none of the other characters care?
Thus we are at the core issue of the film. We are expected to care about the characters simply because of the event that is playing out in the film. There is almost nothing that makes the audience develop any affection for the characters and a desire to see them make it off Dunkirk alive. We are supposed to care just because they were soldiers and civilians doing heroic things, not because they were compelling in any way.
The lead soldier in the film is almost mannequin-like; he has almost no facial expressions, and he hardly says anything at all the entire film. Having a main character that is completely shocked by the events happening around them and almost desensitized by them can work, with Son of Saul standing out as a film that successfully executed it. However, the lead character in Dunkirk, who is apparently named Tommy, had no personality and was simply the vessel through which the audience viewed the events that were taking place. He was not heroic, and was in fact rather cowardly for the early portions of the film, yet his face and demeanor never changed at any point in the film no matter what he was going through.
Get used to this face, as it is the only one he will make through the entire film.
The other major issue with the film is that it is confusing. There are three sections of the film, one on land, one on sea and one in the air. Unfortunately, those three sections all take place at different times, which is not properly apparent within the film. (There are title cards which give some indication of the time difference, but they lack clarity which introduces the confusion in the first place) There are many instances where the film will jump from one shot to another and there will be an initial period of having to try to figure out not only what time this scene takes place in, but how it then fits with other scenes that have already taken place
Making a film that is out of order is not an issue in and of itself; Quentin Tarantino has almost made an entire career off of it. This film however, does not execute the nonlinear narrative well enough for it to be compared to a Tarantino film. Rather than having lengthy scenes that simply take place at different times, there are very often smaller shots or segments that will be mixed together which is very disorientating. There will be one shot on the ground, followed by another shot in the air to check in on Tom Hardy, before going to the civilian boat. All of those shots take place during different times, and it will take time to get them all straight in your head, which only operates as a distraction to the film.
Dunkirk is a film that shares a lot of the same issues with War for the Planet of the Apes. Both films aspire to be something greater than they are. They have lofty messages and themes that they are trying to convey, yet both miss the mark. While Apes missed the mark due to its simplicity not allowing for any subtlety, Dunkirk is trying to convey a deeper meaning without having enough substance.
The narrative of the film is very skeletal, and for most of the film, feels very dour. The soldiers are desperate to get off the beach, and as a result don’t often act as heroes. They are cowardly, manipulative, and will turn on each other if it means they might survive a little longer. Having this perspective is certainly different and can be interesting, but it needs to have a payoff. It needs to be balanced with other perspectives that leads to a resolution that is about finally achieving relief.
Instead, Dunkirk opts for a glorious conclusion. It opts for one that is triumphant and heroic, with the sacrifice and efforts of the civilians shining through the murk of the situation. That conclusion wasn’t earned. What little time was spent with civilians was only spent with two and a half of them, and the scope of their efforts and sacrifice was not properly conveyed- especially not to warrant the tone of the conclusion. Beyond all of the issues with lack of characters, and a narrative style that detracts more than it adds, the real issue is that Dunkirk tried to achieve two different emotional responses. It wanted to capture the desperation and at times the cowardice of the soldiers stuck on that French beach and the heroism of the civilians coming to their aid simultaneously. The result is a film that pivots on a dime near the conclusion and is not able to earn the greater meaning that it desires.