In just 19 years of directing feature films, Christopher Nolan has made one of the strongest cases for being branded as the single greatest working director. His last effort, 2014’s Interstellar, was ambitious to say the lease and one of the largest scope films as of late. It’s funny how his next film, a war drama that depicts hundreds of thousands of soldiers trying to find their way home from war-torn France, could feel small in scale by comparison to his other projects. Nolan’s done intimate projects before and succeeded (Insomnia) but something about Dunkirk feels left out. The story is captivating and it’s one of the best directed films I may have ever seen, but no time is given to get to know, nor care, about any of the characters. This is Nolan’s first sole writing credit in 15 years, and it shows; Nolan’s direction in the film is unlike any other filmmaker out there as of late, but his unorthodox narrative and impersonal characters make it difficult to conjure emotion.
The logline from IMDb for Dunkirk is as follows, “Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.” The film stars many unknown actors though notably musician Harry Styles as well as Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, and James D’Arcy join Nolan regulars Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphey. All actors did their job, but none of them exceptionally. Not for any fault of their own; Nolan’s script never allotted for the veteran actors, whom have all proven their abilities (except probably Styles), to truly stretch their thespian muscles. When likening it to his last film, Interstellar, it lacked many chances for dramatic performing that usually demonstrate his knack for directing.
Three stars is a good film, but “good” is not something that is synonymous with the work of Christopher Nolan. War is ruthless and remorseless, something that WWII classics such as Saving Private Ryan, Letters from Iwo Jima, Fury, and The Thin Red Line were able to portray. When the news originally broke that Dunkirk was going to be PG-13, many were skeptical with good reason. The true horror and danger surrounding these young men and those who come to help never feels threatening; it feels theoretical as we’re not allowed to become familiar with it.
Maybe I was read too many bedtime stories when I was a child, but a film NEEDS a quality narrative. As long as the narrative is solid; the visuals, the acting, and even the direction is allowed to suffer (take Primer as example). But the inverse doesn’t produce results (look at John Carter). The event is fascinating, one that has probably escaped most American audiences, but a documentary could have sufficed. It’s no doubt that Nolan knows how to construct dramatic scenes, unfortunately, I think his love of country came off too strong.
Of course, all my reviews are bias and only an aggregate of critics like Rotten Tomatoes or audiences like IMDb can actually give a larger sense of how the film played. The 93% on RT is a strong indication that I’m in the marginal-section for not being infatuated with the film. If a child were to constantly get straight A’s in grade school, and then one semester came home with a B in class, their parents would be furious because they have always expected the best out of them. Now a kid in that same class gets a B, but has always brought home C’s and D’s, their parents would be delighted. Had Dunkirk been directed by McG or Brent Ratner, it would be the greatest achievement of their career, but alas, it was directed by Christopher Nolan.
“Nolan’s direction in the film is unlike any other filmmaker out there as of late, but his unorthodox narrative and impersonal characters make it difficult to conjure emotion.”
I hope not to detour anyone from going out and witnessing the film. I had the privilege of seeing it in its optimal 70mm film and glorious is not a strong enough adjective to explain what I saw. I hope everyone gets a chance to see it, if not only to support one of my favourite directors of the history of cinema. This review is my personal belief, and I believe that Dunkirk is an incredibly mastered film trapped inside a juvenile way of presenting story. I’m sure best picture nominations and plenty of Academy Awards will be bestowed upon it, which is great for Nolan, just maybe a tad bit disrespectful to his other classics that outshine this one.