God of the Batman nerds and pretty okay filmmaker Christopher Nolan returns with WWII blockbuster Dunkirk. And though it’d be nice to see a movie about a different war (for once), adrenaline junkies, Nolanites, and general audiences will likely walk out entertained.
I’ve always found Christopher Nolan to be a superlative director when it comes to the technical aspects of film; his movies always have some of the best editing, pacing, and especially sound design in the industry. Unfortunately, he also tends to make emotionally flat films with characters one can’t latch on to who speak in lengthy, rote, and unnatural screeds about basement level philosophy (The Dark Knight and Interstellar) or in pure exposition (Inception and basically the rest of his oeuvre). Dunkirk has only the former half of this problem; I couldn’t name any of the characters or tell you anything about them, but the film is nearly barren of any dialogue, choosing instead to emulate—and I think intentionally, if I know Nolan—silent war epics like All Quiet on the Western Front.
Dunkirk is essentially one extended action scene, cutting between three perspectives of the Dunkirk evacuation: sea, land, and air, each aspect with it’s own action set pieces. The scenes on land are the best, with the young soldiers (among them ex-boy band member Harry Styles, who’s pretty good here) successively trying and failing to catch a boat of the beach, only to be thwarted by enemy fire and torpedoes. At sea, a civilian (Mark Rylance) steers his cozy luxury yacht across the channel to aid in the evacuation, picking up a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) out of the water on his way. In the air, a Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy, face covered and largely unintelligible…again) drives off a Luftwaffe plane while quickly running out of gas. Nolan accomplishes a rare feat of having two out of three narratives work, but the sections in the air feel repetitive and aimless, slowing down the building tension from the other two segments.
Nolan has always been an expert at building tension, and Dunkirk is no exception. Casting the main parts largely with young actors without much experience to their name helps sell the narrative of young, inexperienced soldiers caught in an increasingly desperate situation that looks to be heading towards certain death. If you have a heightened fear of drowning, Dunkirk is not for you; the film exploits the horror of being trapped in rising water to great effect. A standout scene finds the gaggle of young soldiers in a sinking boat as a gun-toting Harry Styles tries to force one of heroes off-board to shed weight.
The constant surge of action grows tiring right at the point where the movie ends. Kudos to Nolan for streamlining the film down from his regular two and three-quarter hours. Like the best action movies, Dunkirk understands that one can only sustain an adrenaline rush before the audience detaches from exhaustion. Kudos twice for not highlighting excessive gore like last years Hacksaw Ridge (although I guess it’s a better outlet for Mel Gibson’s rage than innocent policewomen or Jews, so).
Verdict: Dunkirk ranks among Nolan’s best and is a stand out among the WWII genre, but viewers might wish they had characters to better grasp on to.