I remember hearing a friend argue that Christopher Nolan was a one-note director. They didn’t say that there was anything wrong with the note he had played wonderfully for years, but Nolan seemed incapable of stepping out of his comfort zone. In my mind, a Nolan film is based on two core components: a darker more realistic film universe and an interest in asking the audience puzzling questions. This has stayed consistent across his career. Memento, one of his earlier films, asked if memories created meaning and poked at if satisfaction through revenge is legitimate. His most recent film, Interstellar, probed at the concept of destiny and asked if human emotions play a part in our species’ intergalactic survival. Across every film, Nolan always grounded the fictional universe in possibility. Inception’s dream infiltration is depicted as an established practice, Interstellar is rooted in quantum physical theories, and even the Batman trilogy explains the eccentric villains’ superpowers with scientific or psychological truths. Nolan’s ability to make fantasies seem possible mixed well with his interest in asking bigger questions. His films have created some of the best movie magic in the past decade. He could stick to his one-note because he was the only one playing it.
The problem with Dunkirk is it abandons what Nolan is good at. There’s no spectacle in grounding a historical event in reality and there are no bigger questions asked to the audience. This vacancy isn’t replaced with other ideas or skills, they’re left void. Unsurprisingly, Dunkirk feels like an empty film. It has no real purpose or justification for its existence. It’s easy to keep occupied with the action set pieces and convince yourself that good production equates to a good film, but the only question you’re left with after the film is: Why did he want to make this?
Historical films can be great because they give context and connection to events from the past. Some things cannot be conveyed in textbooks or lectures. You can read all the source material there is about the Colosseum, but seeing gladiators fight inside of it is a completely different experience. The best historical films act as a type of virtual tourism. You’re visiting a time in history that no longer exists. You get a glimpse of what it was like to be there and intermingle with the people who were part of the event. The best historical films take the dead relics of the past and bring them alive.
By this metric Dunkirk is an absolute failure. The empty husk of Dunkirk is embodied by the lifeless characters in the film. There are three different narratives followed: one on the ground, one at sea and one in the air, each are anchored by a specific character but none of them provide any meaningful connection to the audience. There are no personal stories shared, no character flaws, no character strengths, no consequence to any action and I don’t even remember hearing any of the characters’ names. Creating a distinction in soldiers who all wear the same thing and have military regulated haircuts can be difficult, but other World War 2 films achieved this through charismatic actors or notable traits and decisions. You might not remember who Adrian Caparzo is from Saving Private Ryan, but you probably remember Vin Diesel was in the movie. Alternatively, you may not recall any of the actors from Letters from Iwo Jima, but you do remember the Japanese soldier who was ordered to commit suicide and chose not to. Dunkirk doesn’t use either of these strategies. The characters have nothing to distinguish them and they don’t do anything worth remembering. Nolan has hinted that his goal for the film was to focus on the events themselves but as it turns out, it’s hard to care about people you know nothing about.
Not every movie has to be a character study, but Dunkirk offers nothing else to intrigue the audience. The personal stories are obviously not the focus, but the grand narrative is also ignored. A movie like The Big Short or All The President’s Men can let the character development take a backseat because the plot is more interested in telling the grand narrative. What caused the 2008 housing crisis? What led to Nixon’s resignation? Or in Dunkirk’s case: What was it like to be part of the Dunkirk evacuation? But the film isn’t interested in the greater context. There’s no explanation for why the evacuation was important. Who orchestrated it? How did it get to that point? Why was it successful? I won’t argue that Nolan was obligated to answer these specific questions, but without characters to latch onto — what is the point of the story?
It appears the point for Nolan was to practice crafting action set pieces and organizing large scale shoots. The best parts of Dunkirk are when the characters are faced with extreme peril. The sound design is exceptional and the editing effectively demonstrates the true horror of war. Enemy bombers swoop into scenes with loud engines getting louder until they nearly deafen the audience. Various scenes of scrambling soldiers clawing their way to safety show the chaos of survival. This is the biggest (and only) strength of the film and it’s evident from the first minute of the film, but it gets tiresome.
The entire movie feels like a prolonged montage of action sequences without a rest. Early on in the film two characters decide to masquerade as medics to gain passage on a ship that’s leaving. This scene starts with a fast-paced score in the background as they race to get aboard the ship but they’re slowed down by crowds of soldiers and bomber attacks. It’s a tense sequence, but I got the sense that it never actually ended. There are peaks and valleys in the drama but the entire film is dedicated to keeping you on edge. There’s never a moment to pause and even when one of the three narratives have a quieter moment, these scenes are dizzyingly interwoven with other characters fighting for their life. Unfortunately for the film’s pacing, tension works like any other emotion, if you feel it for too long it loses its meaning. Which is why despite being a two hour action sequence, Dunkirk is one of the more boring films I’ve seen lately.
Perhaps the greatest sin of Dunkirk is its complete failure to convey the historical importance of the Dunkirk evacuation. Before the film was released I tweeted about a clueless audience member who saw the Dunkirk trailer and was convinced the movie was about the Normandy invasion. I suppose I shouldn’t judge that person too harshly, since not everyone knows about every battle and event in World War 2. But as the credits for Dunkirk rolled, I overheard another couple of adults in their late 20s discussing their confusion: “When did Dunkirk happen? Was it before Normandy? After Normandy? During Normandy?” They had no idea.
In actuality, the Dunkirk evacuation occurred in 1940 after the Battle for France (and four years before the Normandy invasion). The allies had decisively lost that battle. With Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and now France eliminated from the war, with the Soviet Union signing a non-aggression pact, Britain stood alone against Germany, Italy and soon to be Japan. To add to the problems — 400,000 soldiers of the British army were still in mainland Europe. With the English Channel stuffed with minefields and covered by German U-boat patrols and Luftwaffe bomber raids, the evacuation seemed impossible. But the British pulled it off. An accomplishment the Prime Minister Winston Churchill called a “miracle of deliverance.” You don’t get any of that historical weight or significance by watching Dunkirk. You get a two hour movie of guys standing on a beach.
Dunkirk is the story of Christopher Nolan stepping outside his comfort zone to disappointing results. There are moments of Nolan’s big-idea questions sprinkled throughout various scenes, but he never commits to them. It’s as if he wanted to prove that he could do something different and dove into the deep end without using his established talents to help keep him afloat. The man may have a remarkable crew, access to quality talent, and can craft a meaningful set piece but without a bedrock of purpose to support itself Dunkirk flounders and inadvertently proves the criticism against its director.