2017 | rated PG-13 | starring Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy | directed by Christopher Nolan | 1hr 46mins
Studio Pitch: I’m Cristopher Nolan and I’m going to make a World War II movie.
After proving his inventiveness with a fantastical story and command of the visual language of film in the last decade with a series of both original and commercial hits rivaled only by Pixar Animation Studios, writer-director Christopher Nolan sets out to put his fingerprint on a subject auteurs have been exploring for decades: the World War II movie. A subject that can bring out the best in a filmmaker or swallow them whole in the challenge.
We’re going to eventually approach a time when every second of World War 2 from every angle will have been recreated on film and, furthering that goal, Nolan sets his sights on the refreshingly lesser known, very British story, of the dispiriting ending of The Battle of France when nearly 400,000 British and Allied soldiers were surrounded by Germans and trapped on a beach in Dunkirk, France lined up and waiting for rescue to come across the sea to get them. Nolan doesn’t just tell a unique story but does so in a unique way. Dropping in on them and taking a restrained snapshot of the event instead of trying to wrestle with the entirety of the battle. He uses onscreen text to set up the scenario and off we go.
Again employing his time compression theme of Interstellar and Inception, Nolan wraps together 3 stories from the week, the day and a single hour of the rescue by land, sea and air. The first story titled “The Mole” is set on the Dunkirk beach and rescue ships. The second telling the story of a civilian ship piloted by Mark Rylance who sets out to the rescue. The third, a story both claustrophobic and frightening large of two fighter jet pilots over the ocean who intercept enemy fire over the course of an hour.
Even though Dunkirk is ostensibly a war film, apart for the very beginning it features no axis forces nor any fighting. Instead it plays out like a disaster movie, the danger coming from faceless planes in the sky, and the rising water as boats and planes sinking in the middle of the ocean. Nolan excels at these individual set pieces, putting us right in the middle of the tension; but Dunkirk also suffers from the same problem many war and disaster film suffer from – the inability to differentiate individual characters from the mass of soldiers. The film is often pure cinema, wisely ditching unnecessary dialog or traditional character arcs. The other side of that coin is a movie without much of a human foothold. Where every soldier just looks like a young boy with dark hair and eventually those young boys with dark hair are indistinguishable from one another.
The film is shot in 70 mm, a presentation worth seeing on the biggest screen possible. Dunkirk’s best moments feature the pilots (Tom Hardy, again behind a mask) as the camera turns and banks with them as they try to get enemy planes within their crosshairs. Surrounding them, Nolan paints a picture of the vast, vast ocean as far as the eye can see, beautiful and dangerous in it’s sheer unforgiving size.
The way Dunkirk is put together is all now-vintage Nolan, who despite his varying film subjects can only tell a story only one way: cross-cutting back and forth between the action until he can gin up heart-attack level anxiety. Sometimes it works brilliantly as in Inception and The Dark Knight, other times as in Intersteller and now here, it comes off overblown and hollow. A manipulative illusion. It seems to be the only trick in his bag. Christopher Nolan is a hammer and everything looks like a nail. It’s clear he is going to beat this drum indiscriminate of his story or subject matter. Previous films have been bolstered by a unpredictable unfolding story, compelling characters or at least a heartfelt theme to grab onto, but in Dunkirk Nolan rests the entire film on this mechanic. And that’s how the movie feels – like a machine. Like the stopwatch that’s ever-present ticking Nolan cleverly lays into the soundtrack to keep driving home the literal ticking clock tension. It’s a visceral achievement, but one of only a cold and technical interest – and I’m not certain how well that serves a WWII film.
Dunkirk like all of Nolan’s films feels like the work of a guy who loves film, gives all he can to it and doesn’t care if an audience attaches to it or not. It’s an attitude I’ve always liked. But I would also venture to guess that Nolan also loves money, making Dunkirk the only serious World War II film in recent memory that doesn’t show the gory, brutal reality of combat with blood-soaked beaches but with figures who get sniped and go down like in any of his PG-13 action movies. There is also an old fashioned quality to it and while Dunkirk didn’t grab me, history might look kindly on it.