Hot Take: Tense and relentless, Dunkirk is a technical masterpiece that is sometimes overshadowed by its technical prowess. It’s impressive to watch but there’s an emotional intensity that’s missing that prevents Christopher Nolan’s latest from being more than just good.
The sights and sounds of Dunkirk are brilliant. Hats off to director Christopher Nolan for creating a technical tour de force. The slant he brings to a war movie gives this a much different slant than any other war movie like it. We already know war is hell but Nolan immerses us into the true tale of the Battle of Dunkirk that we’re smack in the middle of everything as it unfolds. As expected from Nolan, we have another good movie. However, is it great?
The true tale of Dunkirk thrusts us into the thick of it all as the opening credits roll as we join a group of soldiers walking down the deserted streets of the war torn city. As quickly as the film begins, the group of soldiers is decimated and a solitary survivor — British private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) — finds his way through the gunfire and onto the beach of Dunkirk where hundreds of thousands of soldiers await evacuation. On the beach, he meets Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) who is burying a dead soldier. The two join together and decide to sneak onto a ship carrying wounded soldiers by picking up a wounded man on a stretcher and attempt to get on the medical transport by escorting the stretcher to the pier and onto the boat. The non-linear tale also introduces us to Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a British civilian whose boat was being requisitioned by the British Navy for rescue purposes. Mr. Dawson, his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his curious friend George (Barry Koeghan), all depart toward Dunkirk to help with the rescue rather than hand the boat over to the Navy for their use. The third tale we follow are three Spitfire pilots who attempt to support the evacuating troops from the air as they are sitting ducks to enemy airships. When one of the three go down immediately, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) are left to support the ground troops by taking out enemy fighters hellbent on bombing the shores.
The three non-linear tales are intertwined in such a way that, along with an impressive score from Hans Zimmer, add to the intense mood and frantic and desperate feel of the evacuation. All three tales are told on different timelines and eventually they make their way to one finish. It’s expertly crafted by Nolan who also wrote the film and the cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema who previously worked with Nolan on Interstellar only enhances the mood. Unfortunately, there are times when I felt too close to the action and too involved to really feel anything more than anxious for the soldiers stuck in the middle of this harrowing tale and constantly overwrought. It’s that predominant emotional state that prevents Dunkirk from being as great as previous works from Nolan and while it wasn’t my least favorite Nolan film, it definitely paled in comparison to a few. It’s a different perspective on a war film and it achieves epic status without an epic run time (the 1 hour, 46 minute timeframe feels like a lot more with so much packed into it).
For all of the accolades this film will receive, the one I can’t give it is tapping into the emotions while visually overloading the audience with harrowing and frenzied displays that are almost too intense to allow the film to breathe or the audience to feel anything. It’s almost as if it creates a feeling of shellshock which is equally impressive as it may even be the intent of Nolan to create such a vibe. This tale has plenty of emotional elements but it feels more like a splash rather than what appears like it has the potential to be a tidal wave. Also, this is another film that feels completely misplaced on the summer schedule as Nolan’s work has elements that could be recognized by the Academy if they can remember back that far. And even though it shouldn’t, there’s something about watching this type of film at this time of year that feels awkward. It’s like wearing a windbreaker in the summer. It doesn’t feel right. So, credit Nolan for another excellent piece of work. His version of the events that unfolded at the end of the Battle of Dunkirk is definitely a different type of war movie than we’re used to. Shame on me if I expected great and only got very good, I guess.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- The Reliable Rylance
This film uses visuals and non-verbal communication to convey the story more often than any film in recent memory. It’s a bit along the lines of 2015’s Son of Saul in that way. Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson is especially brilliant in such a role as his face tells stories upon stories without even a phrase uttered.
- Kenneth Branagh
Branagh is another example of perfect casting. As Commander Bolton, he acts as pier master during the evacuation and even though his fear and concern are evident, Branagh’s ability to exude a commanding presence adds a level of reassurance for those awaiting rescue might actually make it out alive.
- Harry Styles
Styles was cast in the role of Alex, a soldier who eventually joins Tommy and Gibson as they try to escape Dunkirk. Styles was cast by Nolan as part of a casting call and Nolan had no idea of his cache as a teen heartthrob pop singer. In his début feature role, Styles gives an excellent performance and it is likely we’ll see him on the big screen again.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- Too Close for Comfort
As mentioned previously, this film thrusts you deep into all three of its main tales. Sometimes, it feels too deep and it’s hard to come up for air at times.
- Why Does Jack Lowden Have to Look Like a Young Simon Pegg?
It’s just weird.