Dunkirk: Can I Get a Refund for a Movie I Didn’t Actually Pay to Watch?

I finally got ’round to watching Dunkirk.

The trailers were better….

 As an exercise in film making and narrative construction, the movie is a work of genius. Nolan’s ability to weave three distinct but converging storylines together into a narrative whole is nothing short of brilliant, and when it clicked for me just what he was doing and how he was doing it, I was amazed at how seamlessly it succeeded. Where it fails, in my not-at-all-humble opinion, is as a theatrical experience. Now, you can’t approach Dunkirk expecting it to be Saving Private Ryan in reverse, where the good guys are being driven off the beach instead of landing on it — and a British version at that — Nolan made it clear when he was shooting the film that he wasn’t making another Private Ryan and wanted to avoid making a film comparable in tone and content. He succeeded in doing so technically — it’s artistically where he failed. Dunkirk is nowhere near as visually visceral (figuratively as well as literally) as Spielberg’s film, which is both a good and bad thing. Ryan wound the audience up so tightly in the first twenty minutes that they never really had a chance to relax and recover before the next round of shooting started — a lot like actual combat, in a way — so that when the movie ended, the audience, individually and collectively, sort of deflated.

Nolan never creates that sort of “tension — relax, almost — more tension” sequence. He carefully ratchets up the tension as the film progresses and never really lets it go, but this is the big flaw in the film: it never gets tense enough. In his other films, Inception, Interstellar, and the Dark Knight Trilogy especially come to mind, he creates a sense of immediacy within the film and sustains it: actions taken or not take have consequences right now, as well as in the near or distant future, seconds count, life or death can sometimes depend on whether you turn right or left, and whether you do so now or thirty seconds from now. And always there has been a looming sense of real, understood danger threatening the characters.

Dunkirk lacks that immediacy and looming sense of danger. Characters talk about having to hurry up and get whatever men they can off the Dunkirk beaches before time runs out, but the urgency of the circumstances shown to the audience never matches the desperation of the dialogue. The Nazis are never seen, apart from a few aircraft and two out-of-focus Nazi soldiers near the end of the movie, and for this reason they never really seem all that dangerous. We see British soldiers on the beaches willing to risk drowning, dismemberment, immolation, and obliteration to get away, but the audience is left wondering just what it is that they’re trying to get away from? If the danger they are fleeing is so enormous and awful that they would run such risks, what is it? There’s much talk of the threat of the Luftwaffe, and how it can pick off the British troops on the beach like fish in a barrel, but you never see more than three Nazi aircraft onscreen at one time, and as it turns out, they are the same three planes during the entire movie. So the Nazi Air Force seems to be pretty much a damp squib — which is far, far from the reality of the real events. Every fifteen to twenty minutes there is some bombing or shelling, but it almost has a desultory feel to it, as if Nolan suddenly realized “Oh, we’d better blow something up in order to remind the audience that this is a Dangerous Situation.” Keeping the enemy or the threat wholly or partially concealed for a large part of a film is a terrific method of adding suspense — remember how brilliantly Spielberg used it in Jaws, where you didn’t actually see the shark until 2/3 of the way through the movie? — but sooner or later the enemy or threat has to actually materialize and in some way demonstrate that it truly does deserve to be feared and that it genuinely is perilous. In Dunkirk the Nazis don’t seem to be a clear and present, immanent danger, but are rather more of an annoyance. The audience is left with a lingering feeling of “What’s the big deal? What’s all the fuss about?” There are moments when the film actually feels tiresome.

Making the problem worse, there’s no real, developed sense of the “big picture.” There are one or two shots very early in the film that try to convey the strategic and tactical situation in which the British Army is trapped, but the point is never firmly driven home. Nolan stated early on in production that he wanted to “humanize” the Dunkirk story by concentrating on small, intimate, personal stories of individuals — which can be and often is a very effective way of telling much larger stories — but as he does so, he constructs stories and vignettes where the audience is told rather than shown that the individuals Nolan presents are imperiled and then the viewers are expected to be empathetic to a plight that is never really very plausibly presented. Instead of the “little picture” standing in for and being enlarged in our minds into the “big picture,” in this case the “little picture” makes the “big picture” seem somehow diminished and thus the overall event itself is not as important as we are being repeatedly informed that it is.

And this is the greatest shortcoming of all — with the exception of the skipper of one of the small boats (modeled on Bert Lightoller of all people!) and his sons, the characters are so underdeveloped that it becomes near-impossible to empathize and sympathize with them, and thus make them real and relatable — there really isn’t anyone to actually care about in this film. This is due primarily to Nolan’s decision to minimize the amount of dialogue in the film. Ordinarily this can be a good thing, as it tends to keep a film from becoming overly “chatty” and works to reduce the amount of “So, tell me, Colonel, just what the hell is going on here?” sort of exposition that makes a lot of war movies tedious. The problem is in this case it results in almost all of the dialogue that is in the film being exposition — there are very few flashes of personality in the cast members’ performances.

Just as one swallow does not a summer make, one badly flawed film does not mean that Christopher Nolan has lost his touch as a director. He did, however, lose his way in Dunkirk, mainly by trying too hard to present a grand, even epic, historical tale within what are the equivalent of the confines of a short story….