I spent $19.50 to see Dunkirk in all its 70 MM glory last week. The accolades being showered upon the film and its undeniably talented writer/director, Christopher Nolan, had me primed for what’s been described as “a masterpiece” (Atlantic), a “tour de force” and “both sweeping and intimate” (New York Times), “incredible” (Village Voice), “a five-star triumph” (BBC), and “a work of heart-hammering intensity and grandeur” (Telegraph).
But after seeing the film, I felt cheated. And not just because I wasted the better part of a $20 bill along with an hour and forty-five minutes of my life. No, I felt cheated because I didn’t see a masterpiece, a tour de force both sweeping and intimate, an incredible five-star triumph of heart-hammering intensity and grandeur. I wanted to see that movie. I love war movies. And I really admire Nolan’s work outside the comic book genre (namely Inception and Interstellar).
Yes, there are a few moments of magic in Nolan’s Dunkirk. The scattered scenes at sea, particularly those that show a ship sinking, are some of the best you will ever see without getting your feet wet. But these are mere moments, in what is otherwise an overwrought mess of a film, lacking coherency, characters, and – above all – drama. And let’s be honest, you really need to work hard for a war film to fall short on drama.
I can understand why the British press have been so overly generous with their praise of this film. Dunkirk is one of those lingering wounds to the national psyche that needed to be healed. Even after all these years, it needed to be addressed, to provide some closure – especially as the nation faces another monumental evacuation from the Continent, with its formal abandonment of the European Union. And, in that regard, it’s almost fitting that the French are largely ignored in the film (as one could argue they were by the British leadership at the time). And not a single German shows his face throughout the picture – a war film that all but ignores the inconvenience of the enemy.
And who better to bring closure to this period in British history than the British/American cinematic auteur-of-the-moment, Christopher Nolan? Well, frankly, I can think of a number of arguably better-suited candidates. Sam Mendes, for example, though he already made his mark in the genre with Jarhead, a movie about American misadventures abroad. Ridley Scott would have been an outstanding choice, but – again – Black Hawk Down. Similarly Paul Greengrass, with Green Zone. The late Tony Scott would have also been an interesting option. As would have the late Richard Attenborough, who gave us a true masterpiece of military folly in A Bridge Too Far (fun fact: his grandson actually appears in Nolan’s film). It’s a shame that David Lean never tackled the subject. And though Leslie Norman gave it a decent go back in 1958, his Dunkirk was likely still too raw – and perhaps too sterile – to offer any real sense of closure (fun fact: Richard Attenborough was one of the stars of that film).
I have nothing against Nolan taking a crack at the war genre, but his talents were clearly wasted on this film. He is known for his mesmerizing plot twists and nonlinear storytelling, which are arguably better suited for psychological thrillers and sci-fi epics. And, sadly, he forces a nonlinear storyline on this film, which robs it of much of the drama and muddies the waters to the point where you really don’t care what happens to any of the characters.
Not that there are any real characters in this film. For the most part, Nolan denied his actors a genuine opportunity to define their characters, which makes it difficult for us to identify with any of them. Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh, two of the most talented actors in the business these days, did the best they could with what little Nolan gave them. The rest are just nameless faces, often indistinguishable from one another, who pop-up periodically in what can best be described as a nonlinear mess of a storyline, spiraling like an eddy around a sinking ship.
Dunkirk is a film lost somewhere between the fog of war and memories that have faded after 77 years of reflection and regret. Nolan seemed to be more interested in trying to impress us with his craft than in doing the story justice. The critics may have declared it a victory, but most of us in the audience felt abandoned on the beach.