Over the last couple of decades, Christopher Nolan has become one of the most unique directors in the industry. As aging stalwarts like Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, and Ron Howard have shown some creative fatigue, so-to-speak, Nolan’s river of inventiveness continues to flow through original stories heightened by ingenuity, incredible acting and mind-bending ideas that never fail to capture your imagination. Having Nolan’s name on a film all but guarantees quality — there’s a high level of excitement in seeing what’s next. So you can understand how much it pains me to say that with Dunkirk, Nolan’s new World War II drama, Nolan seems to have finally shown some cracks in his prolific armor.
It’s hard to put my finger on where the cracks originated, but it may have to do with Nolan tackling a true story for the first time, which limits his ability to create his own world unaffected by anything but his own imagination. By choosing to tell the story of one of the most highly-publicized retreats (and rescues) of the British and French, Nolan has trapped himself into a box that he tries hard to break free of by drafting a script that scrambles the events in a unique way. However, by doing so, Nolan sacrifices a chance to dive head deep into the heartbreaking emotion that underscores the frightening moments of men who could only be classified as target practice for the Germans on the shores of Dunkirk.
Nolan divides the script into three separate story lines that take place in different measures of time.
Story thread #1 follows Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young soldier who does everything in his power to escape the beach, including aligning himself with a French soldier (Damien Bonnard), who ends up causing tempers to flair, even after he saves multiple lives from certain death. At the same time, we meet Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), who spends all of his screen time on the major pier stressing over every decision as he does what he can to rescue all of his men. All of the actors, including Harry Styles as a fellow soldier, give great performances, but we’re never allowed enough time with any of them to feel the fear coursing their veins, so when certain events happen, that’s all they are — moments in history, nothing more.
Story thread #2 involves the British Empire’s attempt to send civilians to Dunkirk to help in the evacuations. The main focus is on Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), an ornery old man who disembarks before given a Navy escort that might hinder his decisions while on the ocean. He’s joined by his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and another teenage boy, George (Barry Keoghan), a character who’s relationship to Dawson and Peter is never established. Dawson’s eldest son has already died in the war, and Rylance does an outstanding job of conveying his grief over that event, his experience in war and as a sailor, as well as his ability to empathize with the soldiers, which carries his determination in guaranteeing his son’s death wouldn’t be in vain.
One of his first acts is rescuing a soldier (Cillian Murphy) stranded on a floating piece of metal in the middle of the ocean. His shock and fear of having to return to Dunkirk leads him to do things against his character. At least that’s what we’re supposed to believe, but other than being part of the battle, we don’t really know why this character is so shell-shocked, especially since we never see much of any battle that would warrant his response. Once again, Murphy does a terrific job with the character, but without context, I couldn’t truly connect with him in the way I believed I should.
Story thread #3 flies high with a trio of pilots that save lives by getting rid of the German pilots that are bombing both the beaches and the rescue ships. The major problem here is that we never see these characters outside of the plane, or without their flight masks (at least in the first hour of the movie), so each pilot is nearly indistinguishable from the others, and because of the way the Nolan constructed the film, their story (and their place within the overall narrative) becomes extraordinarily confusing.
Any one of these stories would have made for an excellent film all their own, and probably would have helped us connect with the characters on a deeper level. Because of the editing style, and how Nolan seems to be attempting to out-Rashamon Rashamon, we’re jostled from one story to the next, inadvertently causing the events to become off-putting or disconnected. For example, when an altercation occurs between George and Murphy’s soldier, the consequences fall flat because we haven’t had the time to absorb their characters enough to care about what happens.
I think what hinders the film most is the time frames from which all of the different stories take place: Story 1 essentially takes place over a week, though we only see approximately two full days; story 2 takes place over the course of a day; and story 3 takes place over an hour. When we see events from one story occurring in another, it’s meant to be an incredible a-ha moment or a visual way to help us navigate the chaos, but all it really does is force us to figure out where the event happened, keeping us from staying bonded to the depth and emotional beats of the characters. As the stories finally converge into the same moment of time, the power of heroism of each specific character is washed away because of the lack of investment.
Now let me be clear: Dunkirk is nowhere near a bad film. I’ve already praised all of the performances, the cinematography is gritty and unpleasant, the action sequences are intense and the sound is amazing. Nolan is also able to capture the complexities of what that moment of time probably felt like to those involved, and his style gives you a real sense of confusion and madness that makes war what it is and the fact that, unless you’ve lived it, there’s no way you can understand what these soldiers actually went through. But by focusing on this as opposed to building characters we could become invested in, none of it works as well as I thought it should.
My Grade: B+
Next week, new movies include Atomic Blonde and The Emoji Movie. If you would like to see a review for tone of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.