One week, one day, one hour.
It seems sacrilegious to criticize the masterful Christopher Nolan on film. Still, nearly no one else is going to say this, so I will: Dunkirk sucks. In an age where there is no shortage of compelling war dramas, Dunkirk is confusing, lapsed, and misplaced in its direction. If that was painful for you to read, imagine how painful it was for me to type.
Retelling the events of the Dunkirk evacuation during World War II in 1940, Dunkirk follows British soldiers from three different battlegrounds: the land, the sea, and the sky. Exhausted after weeks of fighting in Dunkirk, British and French troops are cut off and surrounded by the German army, shooting down their ships and any support that can come through to rescue them. By every account, the Allies are in a dire situation. It’s not until British citizens, not soldiers, board their own sea boats and venture out themselves to rescue their soldiers. In a hastily collaborated effort to save their families and friends at war, about 80 sailor boats saved the lives of over 300,000 soldiers during the battle of Dunkirk. That is an incredible story, one that I’m sure the British retell with pride and patriotism.
The film stars Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, James D’Arcy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy. I identify the cast by their real names instead of their characters because that’s all you’re going to recognize them by. While strong characters are present in most of Nolan’s wider filmography, Dunkirk’s heroes are mostly forgettable on and off the battlefield. That’s because they meander from crisis to crisis, reacting as they go, only rarely having time to slow down for us to care about them or invest in their plights. If you’re going into Dunkirk expecting a lot of buildup to the character’s backstory, chances are you’re going to be disappointed. They’re not as fleshed out as Nolan’s other cinematic heroes are.
That being said, I understand why this is the case in the context of this film. It’s because Nolan wasn’t trying to write compelling characters for Dunkirk. He was trying to write compelling scenarios, and the character’s purposes were more or less meant as surrogates for us to project ourselves onto in order to be more immersed in the chaos on-screen. It’s been done before in film, and it’s been done well. Eraserhead had a mostly silent protagonist so we could more easily digest the confusion and horror the character was experiencing, while Boyhood had a mostly flat lead just so we could more accessibly relive our own childhood memories and nostalgia.
Nolan attempted to use surrogate characters for the same purposes in Dunkirk, and for the most part, he succeeded. That’s because the details he takes away from the people, he invests into the battlefield, and man are the battle scenes visceral. I’ve heard millions of gunshots from hundreds of other films during my career, yet the first time I heard that loud, ear-piercing BANG in the theater from this movie, I immediately forgot everything else I experienced and was immersed in the moment of tension and paranoia during wartime. There’s a lot of scenes like that in Dunkirk, where the action and sound mixing is so sudden and unexpected that it immediately places you in the moment. My favorite scenes probably happened closer to the beginning, where soldiers were in rows quietly waiting to board a life vessel, only to hear a high-pitched hum slowly crescendo into an ear-piercing screech. The soldiers lifted their heads, their eyes widened in panic, and then they ducked down, bracing for impact. I don’t have to tell you what happens next.
The action, the sound, and the production value are all truly the most immersive elements in Dunkirk, and they all need to be praised for their usage in this film. If Nolan had stuck strictly to those elements and put the soldiers through disaster after disaster in a linear path, then he would have a solid, powerful film on his hands.
The problems come in with Nolan’s writing, more specifically with how he chooses to sequence the film’s events. In the film, the three perspectives Dunkirk focuses on all take place in different scopes of time, with the land being one week, the sea being one day, and the air being one hour. If the film followed their stories chronologically, then you would follow these perspectives in descending order from land to sea to sky.
The issue is Nolan starts and ends these narratives at the same time, with each of their stories being intertwined against each other just so they get equal screen time. This makes the film so convoluted, because even though each of the stories takes place at different times, they’re edited to look like they’re all happening at once. Because of this, similar events will repeat twice, the passage of time will go from night to day and then back to night, and then other times essential transitions are cut out altogether. The editing is so jarring and disjointed that it immediately removes us from the picture, forcing us to put our thinking caps on and piece events together like a puzzle instead of simply letting the experience wash over us.
I know, I know, confusing narratives are Nolan’s staple. Except that with his other films, the complexity leads to a point and purpose for their larger narrative. The dreams layered on top of each other in Inception illustrated the scope and stakes of what the characters were really dealing with. The dueling narratives in The Prestige put us in the middle of this warring rivalry between two conniving magicians. And the reverse narrative in Memento put us in Leonard’s shoes to show us the mental instability he dealt with everyday.
Complex narratives led to a larger payoff with Nolan’s other films. With Dunkirk, however, there is no payoff to the nonlinear storytelling. It’s just there to unnecessarily frustrate us and distract us from the larger spectacle going on.
The critics have more or less made up their minds on this one, however, with many calling Dunkirk one of the greatest war films ever made, with some even saying it’s Christopher Nolan’s best film. I expect moviegoing audiences to be more divided on the topic. Dunkirk sports amazing set pieces and action sequences, and it sure knows how to blow stuff up in spectacular PG-13 fashion. But the investment is gone. The care isn’t present. And no matter how much I want to like this movie, I can’t help but get pulled out of the experience every time another jarring cut removes me from the scene. Better war films, such as Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge, understand investment and how to involve its audiences in the tragedies of war. Those films are victories for WWII cinema. Dunkirk is a suicide bomber.