The battle and evacuation at Dunkirk set the tone and narrative for much of the Allied response to the Nazi advances. Christopher Nolan‘s new ensemble war drama distills that heroism into a set of interweaving narratives, telling a powerful story with all of the technical prowess he is known for. While not the masterpiece some are claiming it is, Dunkirk is a great war film– and emphasis on film.
For those who missed that day in history class, (spoiler alert?) Dunkirk was the time the French and English armies found themselves surrounded and trying to evacuate from the Northern coast of France. Only 50 or so miles across the English Channel, almost half a million soldiers waited to be rescued– and British citizens took to their small boats to help bring everyone back.
Nolan tells us three main stories, focusing on a single person on the beach, a fighter pilot (Tom Hardy), and a British man help with the rescue (Mark Rylance). With typical Nolan panache, he mixes up the timelines and weaves them together thematically rather than by time, so Hardy’s heroic sky antics (in reality stretching across several hours) seems to stretch for the days that the soldiers waited on the beaches.
Beautifully filmed in wide-screen format, if you are going to see this in theaters, it deserves to be seen in a theater with the biggest, best screen and best sound system possible. While this highlights Nolan’s skills as a filmmaker, this timeline is also something that was incredibly distracting. When a scene changes from night to day to night again and then to day, it’s jarring, and not in a good way. This seems almost like Nolan trying to show us how clever he is rather than just focusing on telling a story. While this sort of temporal tomfoolery works in a story like Memento or Inception, it just seems out of place in a grounded war movie like this about actual events that transpired. I’d like to see a cut of the film with the story simply told in linear fashion– it would be better sans Nolan trying to show us how clever he is.
Speaking of jarring, (but this time in a good way)there’s also Nolan’s sound design. Every bullet, every bomb hits with an intensity that you feel. As they cross the channel on his boat, Rylance’s Mr. Dawson teaches his son and his friend George to tell the differences in engine sounds between the Luftwaffe and RAF fighters, and soon we as the audience can listen for the differences as well– and feel the dread that comes with the sound of an incoming German plane diving towards stranded soldiers on a pier or on the beach. A line of bombs explode on the sand in spectacular fashion, the final one hitting mere meters from one of our protagonists. It’s raw, it’s visceral, and shows just how good Nolan can be in delivering cinematic greatness– when he’s not busy trying to show off.
Nolan also chooses an intentionally bleak color palatte, helping to reinforce the dire situation. In fact, the only brief bright colors we get are some brief sunsets at the end of the film, as if to imply that their darkest hours were over. He also manages to use all of the real estate available to him on screen. Again, see this on the largest screen possible with the best sound system possible.
On top of its technical achievements, you also have some excellent performances. Mark Rylance delivers a perfect self-effacing Englishman charm, complete with stiff upper lip. On his way to Dunkirk, he picks up a stranded, shell-shocked sailor played by Cillian Murphy, whose performance is also one of the highlights of the film. But the best part here is Hardy– a major complaint with this is that his story is so strong and the stories of the people on the beach are far less compelling. It almost would have been better to just do a Tom Hardy RAF movie. (Although, there is always the possibility for a sequel. . . )
Nolan makes some interesting choices here, not the least of which is to ever mention “Germans,” “Nazis,” “Fritz,” “Jerry,” or any other name. They were simply “the enemy.” This is an interesting choice, as it begs the question why it’s necessary? When you have literally the most universally hated and recognizable modern manifestation of pure evil, why shy away from it? If there was a point, it was lost in the film, but it has the air of apologism.
In isolation, this wouldn’t be so disconcerting. But then you recognize that there is not a single woman or non-white male given any sort of speaking role in this film. It’s a historical fact, yes, that most of the soldiers on the beach at Dunkirk would have been white men. But when Michael Bay manages to make Pearl Harbor, one of the most universally reviled war films of all time, more diverse and inclusive than your film. . . well, that’s strike two. For an example of other types of stories that could be told about the heroism at Dunkirk, you can check out Their Finest from earlier this year.
Luckily Nolan never gets to strike three, but given his comments earlier this week about Netflix, and responses from directors like Ava DuVernay and Bong Joon-ho (who have released films through Netflix that otherwise wouldn’t get distribution) it’s clear Nolan is perhaps the least “woke” major director working today.
That is all incredibly sad, as the film on its own is quite good. But, with great filmmaking power comes great filmmaking responsibility. Doing another white man’s heroism war film seems really superfluous in 2017.
But if you do go see this (repeated for the third time because, yes, it’s the most important thing to know) go see it on the biggest screen with the best sound system you have access to.
4 out of 5 stars