Christopher Nolan has been my favorite director since the one-two punch of Memento and The Prestige. He always brings such intelligence and flair to his stories and I feel like a thought-provoking experience is always guaranteed when he releases a new film. Having said that, I haven’t been all that excited for Dunkirk. War films often fall flat with me because they sometimes tell the same stories with the same themes and feature the same, interchangeably underdeveloped, white male characters. There are exceptions – such as last year’s Hacksaw Ridge, but they are relatively infrequent. Still, I trust in Nolan and wasn’t about to skip this one.
Unfortunately, I walk away disappointed as Dunkirk falls prey to those same tropes and clichés that I fear with all war films. Visually speaking, the film is very much a Christopher Nolan creation, with his familiar framing, editing, and color palette all firmly in place. Throw in another adrenaline-fueled Hans Zimmer score and there can be little question regarding who is sitting behind the camera of Dunkirk. But, aside from that, the film is just another run-of-the-mill war movie.
The premise itself, based upon a true story, potentially lends itself to some originality. Allied soldiers find themselves surrounded by German forces on the beach of Dunkirk during World War II with little hope of escape or options for defending themselves. It’s a simple and focused story, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But it also leaves little room for engaging narrative hooks or twists. The film is virtually one elongated combat scene, with the aforementioned interchangeable soldiers trying to cling to their lives and find some measure of escape.
Only Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson and his immediate associates stand out as memorable amongst the large cast. Dawson drives his boat (of some kind. I’m going to state right now that I don’t know boats.), named the Moonstone, around the waters of the battle, hoping to assist the Allies in whatever ways he can. He is assisted by a young crew and also comes across a downed soldier (Nolan favorite Cillian Murphy). This group of characters comes the closest to providing any real meat to the film and Rylance easily delivers the best performance – in part because he’s the best actor in the movie and in part because his role grants him the opportunity to do so.
There are several additional high-caliber talents among the cast, but they have little to do. James D’Arcy, who was so charming on and a highlight of Marvel’s “Agent Carter” television series as Edwin Jarvis, shuffles around, delivering monotonous war jargon. Kenneth Branagh looks worrisome as he glares out at the carnage, feeling utterly helpless. And Tom Hardy is completely wasted as a bomber pilot. Hardy’s face was actually visible longer when he played Bane for Nolan in The Dark Knight Rises but, in that film, he actually had engaging dialogue and a character arc. Not so, here.
Look, I still love Nolan’s work. It’s unknown what his next film will be, but I guarantee that I’ll be there to see it on opening weekend. But I have such a high standard for his films that I can’t help but be disappointed, here. I don’t want to pigeonhole or artificially restrain him by suggesting that all of his projects need to be deep, intellectual mindbenders, but that’s certainly his strength. His Batman trilogy didn’t exactly fall under that umbrella but they also didn’t allow me to drift away to the degree that I did during Dunkirk, either. I once started thinking about Marvel’s announcement that Captain Marvel would center around the Kree/Skrull war and wondering how that’s possible when we had been led to believe that Fox owns the rights to the Skrulls. I have never before lost focus during a Nolan movie, and I’ve seen them all.
Speaking of Marvel, I expect we’ll see some viewer hypocrisy when Infinity War hits, should it focus more on the epic battle with Thanos and less on character development and furthering the story of the MCU. The same people who overlooked that same issue in Dunkirk will whine about it, then, ignoring the fact that Marvel had nearly 20 other films in which to give us that groundwork and development.
That obviously isn’t the case with Dunkirk and I just can’t get past it. Maybe I’m supposed to be invested in the fates of the Allies just because they’re the good guys or because they’re on America’s side or something like that. But I will never be dragged into a character’s plight out of some dutiful sense of manufactured patriotism. These are individuals with names and histories and specific life goals unique unto themselves. Without getting a taste of that, they come off as video game collateral damage.
As I said, I can do without an intellectual backbone to the film, as long as it offers up a standout experience in some other way(s). How about sharp dialogue? No, not here. Memorable, relatable characters or performances? Other than Rylance, no, sorry. Dazzling action scenes? Well, they aren’t bad action scenes. And they’re shot well enough. But they’re also not unlike any other action scene in virtually every other war film in recent memory: standard, uninventive gunplay (though, there is admittedly an occasional masterful shot of a plane going down). That’s another criticism that people like to level at comic book movies but clearly, a Spider-Man action scene is going to be different from a Wonder Woman action scene which will be different from a Hulk action scene, and so on. But again, it’s okay for war films to be alike because PATRIOTISM and ‘MURICA, folks!
So, yes, I like Christopher Nolan. And I like much of the cast of Dunkirk – especially Mark Rylance. But I did not like Dunkirk, itself. I hope Nolan will get back to form with his next project, whatever it is, and leave the World War II films to the more desperate filmmakers who need to rely on the current political climate to bring in the bucks. The film is far superior to the tripe that was American Sniper, but far beneath more character-driven fare such as Hacksaw Ridge. Heck, it’s not even the best war film of the summer as Wonder Woman blows it away as an emotionally-rewarding viewing experience with arresting characters, affecting dialogue, and enthralling action. Christopher Nolan is better than Dunkirk. I now wait patiently for that Nolan to return.
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