Review Date: 1/117/2018
Rating: 3/5 Peanuts
In a Nutshell:
A terse, tightly woven narrative of one of the most astounding military operations in recent history, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk focuses on the human side of war in a pleasing, if anticlimactic, narrative.
Let's just say it right off the bat - Dunkirk is not your typical war movie. Set during the harrowing retreat of British and French forces in their desperate bid to escape the Nazi war machine, Dunkirk focuses on three distinct yet interwoven stories of the survivors of the miracle that was the Dunkirk operation. Christopher Nolan, perhaps at the height of his powers as a filmmaker, manages to ably juggle between these narratives to keep the action coming and the tension turned up to 11.
For those of you not in the know, a brief history lesson. In the early days of World War Two the Nazis are masters of Europe. After a stunning series of defeats the British Expeditionary Force and what remains of the French army have been chased to the sea and the noose is tightening. Approximately 400,000 British and French forces have literally been forced into the sea, almost within sight of the refuge of the island of Britain, and are left to be fish in a barrel to be systematically picked off by the Stukka dive bombers. Then, in one of those twists of fate that are so unrealistic that they must be true, the Germans halt their advance. In an act of pure desperation the British scramble their civilian fleet of yachts, fishing craft and other unarmed, non-military boats and head for France. Over the course of a few days more than 300,000 British and French forces are ferried to the relative safety of England. Battered and beaten, they remain alive to fight another day.
And this is the tale that Nolan has set out to tell, in three parts - one week on the beaches, one day at sea, and one hour in the air. For those familiar with Nolan's prior films such as Memento, Interstellar and Inception, his fascination with time emerges here too. Indeed seeing where and when these story lines intersect is mesmerizing and in the hands of another director it would be nowhere near as effective - if they even attempted it at all which is doubtful. Nolan's other directorial decisions are likewise unique and yet textbook Nolan. The film is quiet and bleak, rationing out the action sparingly yet to great effect. Nolan also appears fascinated with the concept of violence, showing the impact it has on those suffering it rather than reveling in the glory of combat. Apart from the German aircraft the enemy is entirely unseen, apart from the staccato violence they inflict upon the harried British and French forces.
Unfortunately what keeps this film from being truly great is that which is truly missing here - character. For all his focus on the human toll of war Nolan spends effectively no time developing his characters. The time on the beach is spent with a pair of soldiers desperately trying to escape the carnage of the beach. For all they go through the two of them barely speak. While this allows for a surprising revelation when aboard a stranded fishing boat it does not allow the audience to fully embody their experience, rendering them empty vessels for us to insert ourselves. However, while this technique works to great effect in video game story telling such as Halo, we find ourselves lacking someone to root for. And the stoic determination of the officers trying to organize the loading of their troops onto the beach presents us only with the classic stiff upper lip stereotype Americans have for the Brits. Zooming in to the day at sea, we find ourselves with a man and two boys piloting a pleasure yacht. While there is more character development here it too is lacking. Lastly, Tom Hardy's hour in the air provides the majority of combat you can expect to find in the film. While it represents what is undoubtedly the most exciting parts of the film the realism of airborne radio communication renders it difficult to follow. Sadly, here Nolan has once again relegated an actor of Hardy's quality to hiding behind a mask.
So what are we left with at the end of the day? I found myself wondering that as well. The musical score evokes constant tension akin to a knife slowly descending upon its intended victim, much like Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum. I felt myself emotionally drained from the constant tension evoked here which I suppose was the intended effect. However, despite the miraculous rescue that eventually unfolds Nolan does not repay the audience with any kind of catharsis. While I applaud the choice to have a common soldier read a newspaper printing of Churchill's famous speech the next day the result was that we no longer felt inspired the way that England truly was upon hearing it.
In conclusion, Dunkirk delivers drama and tension in spades, but lacks the emotional charge a story of this nature deserves. As the film's own marketing can attest, sometimes survival is its own kind of victory. The battle is lost (or won), but the war is far from over.