There's a masterpiece lying somewhere beneath the surface of Dunkirk, close enough that I can practically see it far across the shore but far enough away that writer/director Christopher Nolan can't quite step away from his cinematic conceit long enough for the film land anywhere close to Nolan's obviously lofty ambitions. Instead, Dunkirk is a calculated and dispirited mess of a film simultaneously immersive and detached in its retelling, actually reimagining, the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II.
There is no doubt that pretty much everything that occurs in Dunkirk is an intentional artistic choice by Nolan, whose ability to frame single shots in majestic fashion is almost peerless but whose ability to edit full action sequences has always been suspect at best. Dunkirk starts off rather magnificently, a group of young Allied soldiers wandering a residential street warily, their bodies seemingly enveloped by flyers floating aimlessly from the sky and revealing a message from the Germans encouraging them to surrender or face certain death. Soon enough, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), the survivor, maneuvers his way past French defenses and onto the beach where British soldiers have gathered hoping and praying for evacuation while moving the injured toward an awaiting medical ship. Tommy will try to reach that ship, a movement toward sanctuary that he will make repeatedly alongside two other soldiers played by Aneurin Barnard and pop star Harry Styles. Nolan's approach, gimmick really, is to present the film episodically and structured by time. In another story, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) will answer his nation's call for small vessels to help evacuate soldiers from Dunkirk, a call of desperation with Churchill hoping to avoid a slaughter that would, quite likely, decimate his nation's military might and render them defenseless. Dawson is joined by his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney and one of Peter's friends. Overhead, Tom Hardy is a Royal Air fighter who is trying to do as much damage as he can to the enemy before his already slight fuel supply is depleted.
The majority of Dunkirk was filmed in IMAX and 65mm and there's no question that IMAX, preferably 70mm, is the way to see the film if at all possible. As immersive an experience as is Dunkirk, for god's sake don't see the film in some dive theater or, even worse, in one of those distracting theaters where meals can be ordered throughout the film. Dunkirk is a film that demands as little distraction as possible to fully appreciate it.
Christopher Nolan has always been considered one of the more intellectual filmmakers, a filmmaker whose approach leans toward the philosophical and who tries to avoid lazy caricatures and movie cliche's. It's an understandable approach, maybe even an admirable one, but it's only partially successful in Dunkirk. D.P. Hoyte Van Hoytema has lensed the film beautifully, the square framing creating a sense of intimacy as the events unfold and the explosions moving toward the camera in a way that feels invasive and menacing. Yet, while Dunkirk is a beautiful behemoth of a film to behold it's also a remarkably soulless endeavor. Nolan has crafted an experience of war, but he hasn't crafted the actual feeling of a war. While one gets the sense that he was opting for portraying the anonymous enormity of it all, in the absence of personal connection to it all Dunkirk occasionally feels like not much more than a well crafted documentary and, to a lesser extent, a horror film minus the actual horror.
There are fleeting moments when it seems as if Nolan is attempting to insert some emotional resonance, though more likely it's that there are fleeting moments when his cast, most notably Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh as a Naval Commander, manage to add emotional heft to the film's sparse, emotionally vacant dialogue. Even the film's climactic scenes, which should at least symbolize some degree of miraculous triumph, are remarkably flat and unsatisfying and devoid of the remarkable human spirit that allowed such an event to unfold.
Dunkirk could have worked utilizing Nolan's approach, but the action sequences needed more spark and spontaneity and less calculated choreography and faux melodrama driven by Hans Zimmer's clunky original score that worked overtime to force an emotional tour-de-force that was never earned. Even in the basics, really, Dunkirk never really delivers as it never truly feels like we're watching 300,000 men's lives in jeopardy while the actual rescue, which looks awe inspiring in Branagh's eyes, more closely resembles 20-30 small vessels somehow rescuing 300,000 men.
In the end, Dunkirk is a good film. Nothing else. It's a beautifully photographed film and a film that, yes, will likely see some awards recognition as we head into awards season. That's a shame, really, because not only is Dunkirk not anywhere near the best film of the year it's not even the best film opening this weekend. There is a masterpiece trying desperately to come to life in Dunkirk, but Nolan's inability to get out of his own way takes a potentially great film and turns it into a merely good one. The heroes of Dunkirk, the real stories and not Nolan's fictionalized ones, deserved much better than that.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic