After sadistically subjecting me to Pitch Perfect 2 last year (I’m still reeling from that), 366 readers had some compassion this year and voted me into watching Alien: Covenant, Wonder Woman, and Dunkirk. As our administrative prophet and editor-in-chief pointed out, the last choice was rather odd, since we know that Christopher Nolan is an ambitious, high-caliber filmmaker and any film of his would hardly constitute a viewing ordeal. Largely positive critical consensus would seem to validate Greg‘s observation…. except, this selection, which one would assume to be a knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark hit, is fatally uneven: cinema as trauma, with a director at his most aggressively self-important, delivering a film that features, by turns, examples of his most adroit and slovenly aesthetics. Despite its flaws, which inevitably stem from Nolan’s consciously elevated approach, Dunkirk, while falling short of expectations, is an effective work. It’s not a war film, as publicity would indicate. Rather, it could have just as aptly been titled The Great Escape.
This is hardly the first cinematic treatment of the WWII evacuation of British soldiers from the harbor and beaches of Dunkirk, France in 1940, but with the craft and budget that went into this production, it easily surpasses previous, languid versions. On the IMAX screen, Dunkirk is a sensory overload. Undoubtedly, that’s the best way to see it, because all that upheaval, from the lensing of Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) to Hans Zimmer’s aggrandizing score, provides necessary detail. With almost no dialogue, we are bombarded by an overbearing, apocalyptic sound design, which includes explosions of every contemporaneous weapon of mass destruction. It’s too much and—although it convinces us of the torturousness of this historical experience—it’s also not enough; curiously, it’s spiritually bankrupt.
The film centers around understandably frightened young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who, with fellow soldier Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), tries to make his way to a rescue ship. The intensity is almost unendurable; so much so that we are forced to sympathize with the protagonists. However, one of Nolan’s worst tendencies sabotages our chance for actual empathy: he begins overwriting, catapulting us into unnecessary vignettes, one of which involves an RAF pilot (Tom Hardy). The result is to distance us from Tommy and Gibson. Undoubtedly, Nolan is a superior narrative writer, but he’s an impoverished dramatist. Say what we will about John Ford’s dated, overt sentimentality—he knew, particularly in this type of genre, to level the wham-bam machinery down to a minimum and keep the faces (John Wayne, Robert Montgomery) upfront. Likewise, Ford could be counted on to utilize color almost orgasmically—even in emotionally harrowing sequences. Comparatively, Nolan’s monochromatic palette here further magnifies the film’s frigidity.
The action scenes, never Nolan’s forte, are hopelessly muddled, and in spending so much time on them, his structure becomes frayed. As in his Batman trilogy, sweat is needed. Nolan then, and Nolan now, is just too literal to perspire.
Dunkirk is inherently about the immediacy of survival, and too many intimate idiosyncrasies would detract from that goal, but aloofness can be carried to an undesired extreme. Ultimately, this is like an aesthetically impressive video game; ferocious, but emotionally blunted.