Get ready for a rant.
Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s new WWII epic, and it is also the first Nolan film I will review for the blog. I am not a huge fan of Nolan, and I will explain why, but it bothers me that this film is being showered with such universal praise. The few detractors are being insulted and attacked on social media. Of course this review is simply my opinion.
Nolan is a troubled director for me. His films are visually well-made, but there is always a gimmick at the center of the narrative. I have avoided reviewing his movies before because I didn’t want to have to explain my views in such a defensive manner. Nolan seems to distrust his own narratives. In Inception we have to end with an absurd action sequence that undermines the rest of the film’s tone. The Batman movies are okay, but the final entry felt lackluster and uninspired. Interstellar is a bit of a mess and way too long. I respect Nolan’s earlier efforts in Insomnia and The Prestige (his best in my view), but his emphasis on style and this seeming distrust of his own ideas has undermined his work for me.
I am in the extreme minority here (at least reviewer wise), but the film simply didn’t work for me. Sure, this is probably going to be the best WWII film of 2017 (and maybe 2016), but is that a high bar to clear? The story of Dunkirk is an incredible ordeal of survival and heroism—and I really wanted to like it. My notes are contradictory in many areas, but the negative feeling I left the theater with simply cannot be ignored.
Those of who aren’t familiar with the historical backdrop, allied troops have been pushed to the sea by German forces. Now 400,000+ soldiers are surrounded, starving, and being picked off on the beach from relentless air assaults. British citizens answered the call and every able craft was sent to the island to rescue these soldiers. This is an amazing rescue tale—truly.
Before I focus on what didn’t work in the narrative I should go over what did. In short, when the film works, it works fantastically. The timeline is non-linear, but makes sense when we see that the narrative is looking at the perspective of land, sea, and air. I would have preferred to see each story as a whole unit, and not cut throughout, but this is a small gripe.
We do have some excellent talent in this film. The indomitable Kenneth Branagh plays Commander Bolton, and through him we get most of our information. The film is sparse on dialogue, and instead relies on cinematography to tell the story. While I do love Branagh, the show-stealer is Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, a strong-willed and quiet patriot who answers the call to help the stranded soldiers. Mr. Dawson’s tragic and powerful journey is the highpoint of the film, and fully captures the horror and heroism of this story.
By now, you might be wondering what my issue is with the film. The biggest is that the soundtrack is shit. I know a lot of people will disagree with me here, but the constant booming music never ceases, I literally walked out of the theater with a headache. I think it ruined the film. In a powerful scene, rescued soldiers are torpedoed in the dead of night. Instead of being able to hear to booming explosions, crunching metal, rushing water, and the cacophony of screams we get an obnoxious and overbearing musical score. Every scene has a major crescendo—and for me it lost the charm real quick. I would have preferred the film to have no music to this.
For me, the over-blasted soundtrack felt like a cheap and manipulative gimmick. Granted, I am in the minority here, but I think music detracts from film more often than it adds. The blatant attempts at emotional manipulation from the music had the opposite effect for me. I didn’t care what was happening on screen, and just felt annoyed. I have heard it argued that the music works as a metaphor for the chaos of war—sure, but then turn it down when we are outside of the action sequences. I have always found the music overbearing in Nolan’s films, and this is probably why I simply cannot connect with him as a creator. Without exaggeration, you could add +2 to the score below if they release this film without music.
The other major flaw of the film is that I didn’t find Tommy’s (Fionn Whitehead) story as interesting. Having his narrative arc start with a journey to take a crap doesn’t help, but after awhile he gets washed out into the rest of the stranded soldiers. There wasn’t a lot to separate him from the pack (Whitehead does fine acting, but there isn’t much he can do to distinguish himself). With such strong elements in the other areas of the film this one felt a little undercooked for me.
To contrast my disinterest in the land portion, we are treated to some spectacular and intense aerial battles. Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy) provide aerial support against a relentless enemy. Some of the scenes are truly nail biting (I won’t say any more for risk of spoilers).
Dunkirk is a different type of war film. Death strikes fast, and we often see nearly anonymous soldiers dying. There is a gravity within many moments that could have been film perfection without the damned soundtrack blaring “FEEL THIS WAY” at every turn. People are contrasting this film from Saving Private Ryan, and to a certain extent this is needed. This film doesn’t show the brutality of war in the same way, but rather it attempts to make you feel the horrors of it. I wouldn’t classify this one in the same vein as The Thin Red Line, which is also a fragmented and affective narrative.
Fans of Nolan’s previous work will love this film. Simply put, this is Nolan at the top of his game—the problem is that if you don’t like all the components of the game you will be frustrated. I would rate this film as one of the best of 2017 if I could turn the music off. For me, this film does well enough to go beyond a basic war film despite my serious complaints with it. 6.5/10