Running from the bullets.
When you think of Dunkirk, what do you imagine? If you’re American, chances are you’re not seeing much. Can you picture war? Perhaps World War II? Perhaps a beach, sprawling along a vast ocean. Sand, covered in hundreds of British soldiers hoping to get home safely, as Germans bear down on them from all angles. If this is what you see, then I applaud you for listening in history class. You’re also the target demographic for Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s latest film. As for who’s not the target demographic, that would be a 20-year-old boy and his girlfriend, who ended up being the youngest people – by a wide margin, mind you – in a theater full of elderly war veterans. While I admire them for coming out, as well as serving to defend their country, I also can’t help but wonder if this movie was meant for anyone but them. I found Dunkirk to be a beautiful action film on a grand scale, but what it offered in breathtaking visuals and spectacular effects, it lacked in character, plot, and overall emotional development. Dunkirk just felt so lifeless at times, it made me confused as to why I was watching it at all.
Dunkirk follows three main characters throughout their fight along the titular beach of Dunkirk, France. The story is told in parts, beginning with the tale of Tommy, a British soldier. As the only surviving member of his squad, he meets up with a soldier named Gibson, and they try to escape the beach together, boat by exploding boat. This is where Dunkirk‘s first major flaw is seen, which is the lack of connection with its characters. Christopher Nolan previously spoke about the direction he wanted to take Dunkirk, that he wanted to keep the focus on the soldiers as a whole, rather than pinpoint on one man’s story. Because of this, Nolan decided to leave the soldiers’ names unknown, which was supposed to keep the viewers focused on the groups of men as a whole, and not one specific man (i.e. a primary protagonist). Again, this is where Dunkirk’s first major issue comes from.
Unfortunately, I found this cinematic design to be all messed up, and it really hindered my viewing experience. I prefer movies to have a storyline which revolves around a central character, and keeps me glued to the action going on around them. Now, many movies before Dunkirk have used multiple storylines from many different perspectives (AKA “hyperlink cinema”); this method has worked in films such as Pulp Fiction, The Big Short, and Crash. However, Nolan’s original vision fails to hold up when he falls for the basic formula and assigns focus to a handful of characters within their own storylines. My issue here isn’t that the multiple storylines are done badly, so to speak. It’s the fact that Nolan was against this method of storytelling from the beginning. By focusing on certain characters, he gives into the “hyperlink” format. But as he does this, and fails to give character names and backstories to keep the viewer emotionally attached, he loses his focus on the soldiers as a team, and it is here that his initial vision falls through. This left me feeling disappointed, and a bit lost, overall.
Take the character of George, for example. I use George because he is truly the only character whose name I remembered throughout (this must mean there was a spotlight on him in the film; shame on you, Nolan!). George is a dockhand who tags along with boat captain Mr. Dawson and his son Peter, as they sail to evacuate Dunkirk. They take on this job as normal citizens, who have been called upon by the war effort to provide aid and rescue soldiers with their boat. The overall plot line containing George was known as “II. The Sea”, and it could have represented many different boats that helped save the trapped soldiers along the beach. Instead, it focused primarily on Mr. Dawson’s boat, and followed George’s struggles dealing with a pilot who was suffering from PTSD.
One may think I’d appreciate this direction, seeing as I prefer central characters and rich storylines; on the contrary, I found it to be quite disappointing. I wanted to experience something new, like Christopher Nolan had us anticipating. He built this up as if we’d never seen a “war movie” like it before. Unfortunately, having the focus shift from a large group of soldiers to singular protagonists made for a largely disjointed storyline. In the end, I felt as though I’d seen a movie about specific characters, with terrible character development, which failed to keep me interested.
The only character I cared about, besides George, was Alex, played by One Direction’s Harry Styles. I went to this movie with my girlfriend specifically for Harry, and while it seemed like a goof in the beginning, he ended up being the best part. I repeat, Harry Styles’ character may be the best part of this film. His acting is great, his inclusion doesn’t feel forced – as Christopher Nolan didn’t even know of Styles before casting him – and I enjoyed every second he was onscreen. Sadly, I don’t know if I would’ve felt as emotionally invested in Alex’s story if I hadn’t known of Harry Styles before this film.
Harry Styles’ character may be the best part of this film.
It really is a shame there wasn’t as much attachment to other characters as I felt with Styles’ Alex. This was especially true for newcomer Fionn Whitehead, who wasn’t a bad actor either, he just didn’t have much room to come into his own. Even Tom Hardy, who I know and love, was underutilized and felt like a waste of casting. It was nice to see Kenneth Branagh, though, in quite the unorthodox role of a pier-master. He felt like the most fleshed-out character, who intertwined with every storyline, and was given the most room to do his thing. I enjoyed it, but as you can see, I found myself rooting for individuals, and like I said before, that’s just not what Christopher Nolan initially wanted. The director’s own artistic vision felt betrayed, and I too felt let down by what I saw.
One place where Dunkirk really did shine though, was in its action. For all of its story problems and design flaws, I must admit Dunkirk is a truly beautiful film. Christopher Nolan has told many media outlets that Dunkirk is not a war film, instead opting to call it a drama of sorts. However, it certainly measures up to the action of other big-budget war films. The scope of this movie is incredible, which makes sense, considering the movie was released in so many different mediums. The big draw of Dunkirk was its 70mm screenings, which I unfortunately did not have access to anywhere near my location. I also missed out on any IMAX screenings, digital or laser projections. I instead opted for a classic screening in a basic little movie theater, and I still found it to be just as breathtaking and magnificent.
Seeing it in a little theater, the entirety of Dunkirk was shown in a widescreen format, with bars on every edge of the screen. I can imagine the picture being a bit more visually entertaining in a wider format, but I don’t think it detracted at all from the action onscreen. I highly recommend seeing Dunkirk in a theater, however, by any means necessary. I make this recommendation for the sound alone. The film begins with a resounding gunshot, and upon hearing that noise rip through the silence, I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. From exploding boats, to roaring plane engines, the sound design in Dunkirk is truly outstanding.
I was on the edge of my seat the entire time.
Aside from the sound, the visuals of Dunkirk are just as striking. Aerial shots of planes flying towards the sunset above an endless open sea, or soldiers looking off into the distance to see an incredible wave of boats sailing towards the shore; these are the scenes that make Dunkirk stand apart from the crowd. In these moments, when it wasn’t afraid to call itself a war movie, the focus successfully shifted from those few main characters to the soldiers as a team, trying to escape the danger at hand. The camera angles were simply incredible, almost always choosing to shoot from above or below, providing a nice view of the action as if you were watching a documentary, as opposed to a war movie, or even Nolan’s aforementioned “drama”. The sights and the sounds, no matter which screen they were experienced through, really made Dunkirk a masterpiece in its own right, and worthy of more than one viewing.
However you look at Dunkirk, you have to appreciate it for what it is at its core, not what it’s trying to be. Essentially, Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s “thank you” letter to each and every soldier who fought on that beach, and protected our world as we know it. Luckily, the “thank you” was heard, as proven by the audience, which I have heard seems to be the consensus in every showing. Sadly, Dunkirk itself doesn’t prove to be the masterpiece we’d hoped it would be. Sure, it’s a beautiful film, and contains some insane camera shots and gorgeous scenery. Yes, the acting was fairly good, and every part, no matter how small, was delivered well. But Dunkirk is not going to win any awards for its story, or probably any of its performances (and maybe Nolan will see the latter as a good thing).
It’s not about the characters themselves, although it would be a much better film if it embraced them. Dunkirk is the kind of film people will forget about until it sweeps the Oscars for visuals, special effects, costume and sound design, etc. It’s no masterpiece in storytelling, but it’s also not the perfect documentary to show in History class. I suppose it could be called a “docudrama”, but I’m just not quite sure if it fits the bill. At the end of the day, though, it’s Christopher Nolan making his own harrowing journey to Dunkirk that’s worth it, by producing a pet project to give back to those heroes we’ve lost. And I’d say he was pretty successful in that regard.
Dunkirk will not be remembered as Christopher Nolan’s greatest work. It was a disquieting journey through a lesser-known battle of World War II, but it was hardly the impactful epic he was hoping to deliver. Special effects make Dunkirk one of the most awe-inspiring action films I’ve seen in years. Unfortunately, such a prolific director as Nolan could not make Dunkirk‘s tale, nor its heroes, worth experiencing once again.