Cast: Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles, James D'Arcy, Jack Lowden, Barry Keoghan
Director: Christopher Nolan
Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
There's always been an aestheticized coldness to the films of Christopher Nolan which has garnered both adoration and frustration; drawing comparisons to the likes of Stanley Kubrick for the remove to which he often lays out his puzzle-like narratives. In Nolan's best work, this aesthetic precision has resulted in some awe-inspiring visuals, such as Heath Ledger's Joker leaning his head out of a taxi cab during The Dark Knight, the zero-gravity fight sequence in Inception, or any number of shots from the cosmos-spanning epic Interstellar. However, the issue for Nolan has never been a lack of visual audacity, but more in the way he chooses to cut his images together into a coherent story. When tied into a narrative framework warranting such chronology-bending tricks, like Memento or Interstellar, the results can be spectacular. However, when this approach is tied into a historical context, you get something like Dunkirk, an ambitious, if dramatically inert, tackling of how 400,000 Allied soldiers were trapped on the northern coast of France during World War II as the Germans approached.
In terms of pure technique, the film is an unqualified triumph; full of widespread visions of harrowing destruction and thrilling airborne dogfights, but it's also a picture which feels strangely aloof from the reality of human suffering. Part of the problem is Nolan's insistence on interconnecting several narrative threads when no such time-shifting tricks are necessary. At first, the lack of expository information and character development is a bold choice, as we are instantly thrown into a state of disorientation following a terrified soldier, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), as he attempts to make his way from the titular beach onto a departing rescue ship. With the aid of Hans Zimmer's pounding metronomic score piercing through the din of gunfire and approaching German planes, Dunkirk firmly establishes a tone of hopeless chaos which matches the film's rhythmic editing scheme. Perhaps as a response to war film clichés, Nolan also dispenses with the usual setting up of his rag-tag group of soldiers, instead attempting to immerse us in the overwhelming confusion of nameless men simply trying to survive. During its opening stretch, Dunkirk successfully conveys the idea that such tropes are the stuff of Hollywood manipulation; only there to set up the audience with emotional surrogates which will inevitably pay off later. Unfortunately, though Nolan's main aim here seems to be to use all of his visual skills as a filmmaker to bludgeon the audience into a state of nerve-ridden shock and awe, no amount of visual spectacle can paper over a lack of human connection. In other words, Dunkirk roars and spits fire in glorious 70mm, but it's like watching a highly skilled technician order the building of a massive World War II-themed Erector Set and then forgetting about all of the blue collar workers who slaved over its elaborate construction.
As indistinguishable characters are introduced; a frightened private (Aneurin Barnard), a paranoid infantryman (Harry Styles) Tom Hardy's daring RAF pilot, a civilian captain (Mark Rylance) whose private boat is used as an evacuation vessel housing a shell-shocked pilot played by Cillian Murphy, one gets the feeling that Nolan isn't interested in the human cost of war. Instead, the characters, which also includes Kenneth's Branagh's stoic commander, are utilized more or less as chess pieces to be shuffled around so that the film can jump around in time. Rather than cross-cutting between the various subplots, Nolan chooses to muddle up the timelines, giving many of the action sequences (which replay from different perspectives at varying points in the film) a feeling of spatial incoherence. Of course, such slipstream editing is meant to mirror the disorientation of the soldiers, but the events depicted would have had more visceral impact if told in a linear fashion.
Beyond the film's structural failings, the clinical editing means that there's very little in the way of human drama, psychological insight, or historical specificity. What at first felt novel--eschewing backstory, making the soldiers appear physically indistinguishable from one another, the reliance on sound and image to evoke tension--begins to feel distancing and mechanical as the film proceeds. The subplot involving Murphy's traumatized pilot and Rylance's wily civilian, for instance, had the potential to dig deep into their opposing ideologies and the emotional fallout of a military debacle, but it's quickly dropped in lieu of more muddled continuity problems. However, in terms of visual craftsmanship, there are individual images in Dunkirk which rival anything Nolan has attempted yet. For example, there's a breathtaking shot where a Spitfire engine fails and the plane simply glides, like a graceful bird, across the smoke-filled skies. During such moments, Nolan conjures the kind of grand, large-scale moviemaking (shot on 65mm celluloid, of course) to which he so strenuously aspires.
To that end, cinephiles claiming the art form isn't on a downward trend will likely champion the film as a towering example of blockbuster filmmaking of the highest order. Surely, the term masterpiece will be tossed around. While there's no question Nolan has the raw talents to create distinctive visuals (although the monochrome color palette here does give things a kind of monotonous visual sameness, despite the fireworks on display), it's almost as if he devises single images to take one's breath away without bothering to connect such image-making to an emotional core. If war is the ultimate dehumanizing machine which turns men into faceless instruments, then maybe Dunkirk succeeds at its own type of impersonal demonstration of aesthetic above all else. Still, as Rylance's brave civilian captain approaches enemy territory in order to save countless lives toward the climax, we are not struck by his selflessness so much as we are distracted by the film's unrelenting bombast and Nolan's stubborn unwillingness to allow a grace note to emerge from the fog of war.