‘Dunkirk’: Visually stunning, emotionally empty

by Tim English on July 21, 2017

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Down]

Well, this is awkward. You ever have a movie that is the talk of the town, coming from arguably one of the best directors working in film today? And then you see it and you’re like, “yeah it’s good, but….meh.”

Welcome to Dunkirk, my friends. Part war movie, part Christopher Nolan artistic wet dream.

Let’s just be clear. I did like this movie … well, some of it. I think it does a lot of fascinating things that most filmmakers don’t have the balls to do, especially for a big-studio war flick. No doubt it’s an astonishing visual achievement that hammers home a few brutally intense sequences. But it’s a movie that needs you to care about the young men whose lives are in danger and except for a couple of dudes, I couldn’t really tell you who is who.

Based on real life World War II events, Dunkirk tells the story of thousands of Allied soldiers trapped in Dunkirk, France, waiting for rescue while devastatingly surrounded by German forces. For some reason, Nolan chooses to tell this story of bravery in three plot threads that cover three differing but ultimately culminating timelines: the evacuation by sea (taking place over one week); the escape from land (one day); and the dogfight in the air (one hour) to ensure the rescue is successful.

Nolan eases us into the film during a quiet moment before the chaos erupts. Of course, getting dropped into the action means there is little to no setup to where we are, what is taking place and how we got here. In other words, if you don’t know what you’re walking into with this flick … good luck figuring it out. Part of the problem is Nolan’s storytelling method is the tricky manipulation to weave the three story timelines together. It’s effective at times (assuming you pick up on the vague clues early on), but it the way it jumps from storyline to storyline like a ticking time bomb, it becomes hard to care about any of it, mostly because you barely have time to get to know these men. Sure, it’s easy to identify with the fear and desperation, but any real characterization ends up feeling force fed.

This becomes a serious problem by third act of the film, which is by far the best, because you really have no emotional connection to any of the characters outside of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) a fisherman who volunteers to help in the rescue, and Farrier (Tom Hardy) a pilot involved in the intense dogfight above. Otherwise, you learn very little about each soldier it becomes hard to tell them apart. Some characters criss cross timelines, but it fails to add any emotional connection to this story about heroes overcoming insurmountable obstacles as they fight for survival during this harrowing nightmare.

As a filmmaker, Nolan is on top of his game. There are two sequences that really stood out for me. One involving an early torpedo attack on a ship, the other being the climactic battle in the air involving Tom Hardy’s character. Nolan does an incredible job of making it feel like you’re on that beach when bombs are dropping, or in this ship as water engulfs it leaving frightened young men drowning in fear, and in the cockpit with Farrier as he charges into one more battle with his fuel tank on empty.

But it would be more effective if I cared about any of the people in this movie. Nolan is the screenwriter here as well, which is where the emotional detachment begins. The time manipulation is kind of annoying and maybe even borderline pretentious. It feels like the gimmick of a filmmaker who is trying to do too much just to prove he can. It’s a bold decision that only Nolan would even attempt. But it’s not strong enough to work in the final act when all of these threads are supposed to come together.

Plus, for a film that is steeped in realism and heroic efforts, it largely ignores the involvement of the French as both part of the sacrifice and the rescue from Dunkirk, focusing largely on the British soldiers. Whoops.

No doubt Christopher Nolan is one of the most talented filmmakers in the word and most likely he has forgotten more about the art of filmmaking than the future all-stars of today’s movie super geeks will ever know. But Dunkirk feels as empty in the heart as it is full of filmmaking craftsmanship. And if you’re going to give me an intense war story about the bravery and sacrifice of men for the greater good, give me someone to invest in and care, not just good actors staring off into the reflective horrors of war.

Writer. Ad Man. Jedi. Sometimes people ask for my opinion on movies. Sometimes they agree. Member of the Kansas City Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Creator and voice of the Reel Hooligans podcast. Find us on iTunes. Board member for the Independent Filmmakers Coalition of Kansas City and founder of the Terror on the Plains Horror Festival.

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