Cal takes in a 70mm screening of Christopher Nolan’s latest. Was he impressed?
The latest big-budget magnum opus from director Christopher Nolan, 2017’s Dunkirk is one of the purest cinematic experiences of the year; a war epic built around visual storytelling backed by minimal dialogue. In a number of ways, Dunkirk is a masterpiece – it looks and sounds great, flaunting top-notch production values across the board, and it is a stunner to behold projected in 70mm. Backed by a generous $150 million budget, Nolan puts his audience into the thick of this pivotal World War II tale, covering land, air and sea to convey the breadth of the miraculous true-life event. However, it’s also almost entirely devoid of emotional attachment, finding Nolan ostensibly unwilling to even try to carve out fully-realised characters or create any arcs, as he’s too focused on the you-are-there experience of the Dunkirk evacuation. With this in mind, the extent of the film’s effectiveness will remain in the eyes of the beholder, but I was left wishing I liked the movie more than I did.
The Dunkirk evacuation – also known as “The Miracle of Dunkirk” – occurred in the summer of 1940, during the early days of WWII. German forces managed to successfully advance in their planned takeover of Europe, in the process pinning 400,000 Allied troops against the English Channel, leaving them stranded due to complicated geographic accessibility and a shortage of available warships. With Hitler’s armies closing in, Winston Churchill orders recreational boat captains to mobilise for the rescue while the soldiers at Dunkirk hold out as best they can. Among the soldiers on the beach, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) sticks with Alex (Harry Styles) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) as they attempt to escape on a vessel, while an overwhelmed Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) tries to coordinate the mayhem as dive bombers swoop the area. Across the channel, boat captain Dawson (Mark Rylance) answers the call to assist in the Dunkirk rescue, and encounters a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) along the way. Up in the air, Royal Air Force fighter pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) puts his life in the line as he winds through the air with limited fuel to take out as many German bombers as possible.
Written solely by Nolan himself, Dunkirk is experimental in its narrative structure, opting for a nonlinear approach in order to create a weighty payoff when all plot threads coalesce for the climax. This nonlinear technique was seemingly also employed because the three stories occur across different periods of time – as informed by brief captions, the land-based story happens over a week, the sea-based story is a day, and events in the air happen within an hour. To be sure, the use of different perspectives is effective to convey a grander understanding of the evacuation, while also serving to keep the film feeling fresh. However, the chronology-bending antics can be confusing, and it remains questionable whether the project even needed this type of structure. Indeed, it’s jarring to leap from midday to pitch-black night and then back to daylight, and it appears that we eventually start seeing the same action from another viewpoint, but it can be hard to tell if it’s supposed to be a replay or a different event entirely. The palpable intent is to create the sort of confusion that soldiers feel in war, but confusion is sufficiently built by not seeing the actions of the Germans. Perhaps Dunkirk might have worked better if each segment played out individually, before cumulating for the big finish.
In a way, Dunkirk’s lack of emotion feels like a conscious effort on Nolan’s part to challenge his critics after Interstellar, which was drenched in forced sentiment that the helmer ostensibly struggled with. Aside from a few moments in Dawson’s story and a touching closing scene, there’s very little in the way of humanity here, and there’s no central character to latch onto. Characters are thinly-defined, with no backstories or personalities – hell, most aren’t even given names! Again, you can understand that Nolan was aiming for an experience with minimal dialogue, but you need something more in a movie to make it feel more dramatically cohesive. With the cast mostly comprised of unknown performers, the film basically belongs to the recognisable veterans. Branagh is particularly exceptional, not to mention superbly naturalistic as a smart, dedicated officer, while Rylance again shows his terrific acting chops with an understated but flawlessly essayed portrayal of a kind-hearted civilian trying to do his bit. Poor Hardy, meanwhile, is stuck wearing a mask for most of his screen-time, making him tough to understand and severely limiting his expressivity. James D’Arcy (Agent Carter) is also on hand as a colonel who serves Commander Bolton, and he brings sufficient gravitas to the role. As for the casting of One Direction pop singer Harry Styles? The low-ranking soldiers are so generic and undefined that I couldn’t even figure out where he was, and the casting decision does seem like a cheap way to boost ticket sales for the tween audience.
Nolan’s dedication to shooting on celluloid and using practical effects remains a genuine breath of fresh air in today’s digital effects-laden blockbuster climate, and his style is a perfect fit for a war movie of this scope and scale. One would be hard-pressed to pick out any shots containing obvious CGI, as Nolan wisely elected to use real ships, real planes and real locations as much as possible, creating an astonishingly tangible aesthetic that’s impossible to fault. Furthermore, to ensure the best possible image quality, director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema lensed Dunkirk using a combination of 65mm and 70mm film stock, and the resultant dimensionality and crispness would be impossible to achieve digitally. There are many taut, suspenseful set-pieces throughout the film which get under the skin, including frenzied dogfights in the air and warships being sunk, showing the superlative level of cinematic craftsmanship that Nolan is capable of. It’s topped off by a powerful, dynamic sound design and a relentless score courtesy of Hans Zimmer which does effectively support the imagery and drive the pace, but can also be too intrusive at times.
To Nolan’s credit, there are some genuinely unnerving sequences as well – such as a moment depicting soldiers getting crushed by a drifting ship, and a set-piece in which many poor souls are trapped in the belly of a sinking ship, helplessly drowning in the terrifying darkness. However, one can only dream of what Dunkirk might have been with the freedom of an R-rating. The film strictly keeps within the boundaries of a PG-13 rating (a pathetic 12A in the UK), undeniably restricting the combat sequences, making it feel unnaturally sterile when the brutality of war should not be sanitised. The lack of blood instantly takes you out of the film, reminding you this is a commercial product. Early into the movie, for instance, dive bombers attack Dunkirk beach and a soldier is directly hit with a bomb, but his body isn’t blown apart and there’s no blood or viscera. Plus, whenever said bombers unload their canons which are capable of tearing soldiers to pieces, there isn’t a drop of blood to be seen. The bloodless attacks are admittedly scarce, but it’s impossible to convey the full horror of war within the constraints of a PG-13 rating, especially in the shadow of full-blooded WWII films like Saving Private Ryan, Hacksaw Ridge and 2014’s Fury.
Mercifully, this is one of Nolan’s shortest motion pictures, clocking in at a mere 106 minutes including credits. It’s certainly a refreshing change after the indefensibly plodding Interstellar and the bloated Dark Knight Rises. Oddly, however, the scope of the movie suddenly feels a tad restricted as it approaches the finish line. It still looks marvellous, of course, but the major turning point in the evacuation is short-changed; only a dozen or so civilian skiffs are glimpsed arriving to evacuate troops, rather than the hundreds which would be required for such a large-scale operation. The actual evacuation actually continued for eight days, but in the film, it abruptly ends not long after the boats are seen arriving – there aren’t even captions to fill in the blanks! As a result, it’s impossible to get the feeling that over 300,000 troops were evacuated, which is bizarre for an otherwise expensive, large-scale film. Also pertinent is that it’s hard to get any sense that thousands of German soldiers surround the beach and are closing in whilst Allied forces pray for a miracle, which could have been visually conveyed in some of the many sweeping aerial shots of the beach.
Ultimately, Dunkirk feels like the latter half of a great war movie – it lacks in context, character and even story. It’s the equivalent of starting a Titanic movie right as the ship begins to sink. Many are already claiming Dunkirk to be the best war movie of all time, which is an absurd statement. Its technical accomplishments are not to be underestimated, and the movie looks stunning in 70mm, but its shortcomings in terms of character and storytelling are hard to overlook. Still, Nolan does build to a touching footnote in which Winston Churchill’s famous address is read aloud by one of the soldiers, though this moment does serve to highlight how emotionally bereft the rest of the film truly is. Shortcomings aside, Dunkirk is a worthwhile war movie that absolutely demands to be witnessed on the biggest possible screen.