Review: Dunkirk


Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s latest film, is getting rave reviews and is penciled in as the first sure-fire Oscar nominee. Therefore, I ended up puzzled and disappointed. I recommend Dunkirk, but not enthusiastically.

It is of course about the evacuation of British and French troops from a corner of France across the English Channel, after the Germans had beat them back and cornered them. 300,000 men were jammed onto the beach, waiting for the Germans to capture or kill them. It’s a big deal in England, not as much in the U.S. because they weren’t involved (it was 1940). For a certain generation, Dunkirk is a major part of the English consciousness, even though it was a retreat.

Nolan, who loves to go non-linear, divides the story into three parts, basically land, air, and sea. The land, or The Mole (not the burrowing mammal but a pier and jetty thrusting out into the Channel) covers one week ot time, The Sea covers one day, and The Air one hour. This makes for some time-bending that can be very confusing, as we go from daylight to night and then back again.

I’ll start with the best, and that’s The Air, which covers a couple of spitfire pilots who are the only air cover the soldiers have. Although we get a cliche of a gas gauge not working, the storyline here is clear and precise–shoot down German dive bombers. And they do, in some of the most thrilling dogfight footage I’ve seen (the best, I think, is Wings, way back in 1927, because they used actual planes).

Tom Hardy is the ace, but he doesn’t say much (when a German plane goes into the drink, he calmly says, “He’s down for the count”). Mostly we only see his eyes, as he’s wearing an oxygen mask, but Hardy’s eyes do all the talking. The one bit of genuine excitement in the film is when Hardy has to decide, on low fuel, whether to fly back to England or shoot down a bomber headed for a ship laden with men. What do you think he does?

The Sea has Mark Rylance as a proper Englishman, dressed in sweater and tie, taking his boat out to help rescue the soldiers. This is probably the most memorable part of the history, as hundreds of “Little Ships” aided in the cause. He is accompanied by his son and a teenage friend, and they pick up a man sitting atop the wreckage of his ship (Cillian Murphy). He is suffering from what we now call PTSD and when he hears that Rylance is taking the ship towards Dunkirk he is enraged–that’s the last place he wants to go.

The Mole is the section I had the most trouble with. It kicks off with a soldier (Fionn Whitehead) surviving a fusillade of German guns. He and another soldier, whom he meets burying another soldier, try to get aboard a ship going out while holding a stretcher bearing another man. From then on I had to check Wikipedia to see what happened, as the soldiers all look alike and there is absolutely no characterization. They are also largely indecipherable, with thick accents. They go to one ship, then jump off when it’s hit, get on another ship, same thing, then get in an empty fishing boat and get shot at. At this point I had completely lost the thread.

The other part of The Mole is Kenneth Branagh as the naval commander standing at the end of the pier, peering off to see England. His job is mainly to say “Home” in warm tones, while shedding a British tear. Really, what this section needed was title cards that said simply, “Day 1,” “Day 4,” etc., to give the audience some perspective on the time passed. Otherwise it appears that Branagh has been standing at the end of that pier for the whole week.

Visually the film is stunning, shot in blues and grays and olive greens by Hoyte van Hoytema. There are many scenes (too many really) of ships going down, and men trapped underwater. One scene, with an oil slick on fire and men underwater beneath it, is hauntingly filmed, as the men have to make a terrible choice–drown or burn.

The score, by Hans Zimmer, is typical Zimmer–too much by half. He uses a lot of metronomic sounds to ramp up the tension. Sometimes it fits and sometimes it’s overwhelming, as the film is loud enough already.

I was all set to enjoy Dunkirk, but it just didn’t do it for me. It’s just okay.


About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

3 responses »

  1. I basically agree. I’m pretty disappointed – as I’m sure everyone here knows, I’m an immense Nolan fan, but this didn’t do much for me.

    A lot of the problem, I think, is that the war movie is just dead as a genre. It’s just hard for me to escape the feeling that I’ve seen all this before. If not this, exactly, then something very much like it.

    Narratively, I don’t think the film is very successful as a Dunkirk movie. There were 330,000 people rescued, we’re told, and all we see is a few small boats headed that way. I don’t think the movie gave us a good sense of the sheer scope of the operation. Out of 330K, we’re shown the means to get, what, a thousand or so out of there?

    I can’t imagine the logistics of what that must have been like. That’s the equivalent of a city a little bigger than Pittsburgh. Against that kind of scope, the decision to focus on a single boat captained by Mark Rylance seems like a poor choice. It’s too small. Dunkirk isn’t the story of some guy being a hero, it’s the story of thousands of people like him being heroes. It’s not a story worth telling on its own.

    I doubt anyone can watch this movie and have even the vaguest idea of how the evacuation of that beach actually worked. Why was the Mole section set over the course of a week? There’s no sense of that kind of time passing. Why focus on a single sailor in the sea section, but give such small time to the guys stuck on that beach for the week? We’re shown a single bombing run, basically, and that’s about it. There’s nothing that happens in the movie that couldn’t have happened over the same day that Rylance is on his way.

    The subplot of the soldiers in the Dutch ship was very poorly integrated into the narrative. I’m not even sure what was happening there from a basic plot standpoint.

    It’s a shame because the movie started so promisingly. Following the one soldier from when the leaflets were raining down until, say, the time he was ordered off the medical ship, that was all tremendous. But then it all just kinda fell apart. Nolan traps himself with this script – he’s obviously wedded to the idea of making the individual soldiers anonymous and interchangeable, yet he decides to focus on individuals in the air and sea sections, but without making them very distinctive as characters. They’re meant to be everyman types, but their isolation (in planes or on the boat) necessitates more development of them since we’re spending so much time with them.

    I don’t know. I didn’t hate it, but it’s ironic that Nolan’s least creative and distinctive film to date gets the most critical acclaim. It just kind of is what it is. I’m disappointed.

  2. Agreed. Thank you for breaking down the different time lapses – I was clueless and I’m generally an intelligent person. I didn’t understand how the little boat was heading to the Mole in daylight and it was nighttime at the beach. Then I wondered how the planes could fly for what seemed like days. It was just a mess. (And sadly, I admit, I had to ask my 80 year old father what the Mole was – as I thought I was looking for a spy. Ugh.) The music was insane. There wasn’t a moment that was silent. Just that never ending anxiety producing music that inevitably became annoying. Finally, I sadly admit that I almost fell asleep. Color me very disappointed. I enjoyed Atomic Blonde (which I saw the night before) a 1000 times more even though most of the reviewers generally said you never really understand what was happening but I seemed to “get” that just fine. So whatever, I guess! :)

  3. I’m regard Nolan a fair bit lower than most here, so perhaps that’s why I was generally fine with it as I didn’t have particularly high expectations.

    I usually don’t take much notice of when people say of a film that you have to see it on the big screen, but in the case of this film you really are missing out if you don’t see it at a cinema or at IMAX. It is quite a stunning visual experience at times. And probably it’s greatest achievement that as a visceral experience it makes you feel like what was like to be there; no mean feat.

    But as documented by others above, there are weaknesses in the film. I didn’t necessarily mind the way the film was structured but it did make the film feel a fair bit longer (and overlong) than it’s relatively short running time.

    I thought the film’s biggest mistake was the finale with the reading out of Churchill’s famous defiant speech; after 95% of the film being about not being the usual uplifting, jingoistic war film and instead being a “you are there” experience, it becomes an old-standard WW2 flag-waver which British cinema used to do by the truckload in the 50s & 60s. And in the context of this film it felt very jarring. As someone on another website observed, it was a film that wanted to avoid war cliches until it decided to be about the war cliches.

    But overall, even though Nolan and war aren’t my ideal idea of a night out at the cinema, I thought it was a fairly impressive effort.

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