Less a film about an event and more a film designed to reproduce an experience of an event, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk (2017) is an interesting work concerning the monotony of warfare and the value of perspective. Aside from the Mark Rylance section of the story on the sea, dialogue is sparse, and emphasis on the collective protagonist is palpable as we are placed in the position of participant rather than merely spectator. How this is achieved is interesting on a variety of levels, and not necessarily bound to the 70mm photography used to realize this story. Perhaps better associated with the approach to narrative that Nolan utilizes to intentionally distance the audience from characters and arcs, our senses of duration and process is engaged as a result of a lack of an anchor in this story, beyond the geography of the space. Still, while the process of Nolan's approach to conveying this iconic moment in World War II is compelling, Nolan falls into his old bombastic habits and can't fully embrace the naturalism of war that he's trying to articulate on film.
Opening with a series of intertitles introducing the three primary terrains of the narrative in Nolan's Dunkirk, numbers are given early precedent over people. "I: The Mole," "II: The Sea," and "III: The Air" are used to firmly introduce that there are three settings for the evacuation of the 400,000 English soldiers on the beach of Dunkirk in France, and this distinction would feel unnecessary were it not for numbers. From one point of view, Dunkirk could be seen as a film that is removed from its subject and the people involved, but the opposite of that feels more true. That is not to say that this film is particularly involving on an emotional level, but rather that it's a film about experience over dramatics.
Numbers, as opposed to names, distance us from individuals, and even in spite of Dunkirk having a set of familiar faces that we can latch onto throughout the course of the film, it is largely a film that embraces the anonymity that only a number can lend to an individual. This is perhaps best illustrated in the aerial combat sequences that make up the second of the three narrative divisions Nolan has constructed. Tom Hardy plays a spitfire pilot whose face is covered by his oxygen mask for almost the entirety of the film. He is not Tom Hardy, the star; or Tom Hardy, the friendly face we can identify with as viewers; but instead a man serving in the RAF with a job to do – he's a character with a distinct function rather than pronounced characteristics. Everyone in the film is comparably anonymous, with their matching uniforms and haircuts, and this is complimented by the general lack of star-power on screen. With exception to Harry Styles, who still manages to blend in while delivering excellent performances in all of his scenes, the rest of the soldiers stranded on the beach benefit from their own relative obscurity.
All of that is interesting, but working against this cast of "numbers" is an important narrative issue: very few characters die. Dunkirk is a story of a survival, in truth and in this film, and many people did lose their lives, but a vast majority of the characters in each branch of the narrative live to see the closing credits. The stakes aren't high enough when everyone miraculously survives a series of disasters at sea and close encounters with death in the air and on the beach.
Furthering the combined issue of the number-like quality of the cast and the lack of death on screen for major characters, the violence is generally at a distance. Ignoring the opening five minutes, violence is enacted by a faceless enemy with only a national identity: Germany. Nazi u-boats launch torpedoes and airplanes fire bullets, so the enemy remains as "anonymous" as the Allied forces, but in a different way. Like specters, the enemy swoops in at inconvenient moments and disrupts our protagonists' progress. In Stanley Kubrick's World War I film Paths of Glory (1957), the German enemy is never shown on camera, but it works because there's so much at stake. Seeing the German airplanes in Dunkirk distances us from them, and this is largely a result of the planes being only seen from the perspective of soldiers on the ground, sailors on boats, or Spitfire pilots. When the German's get shot down, it feels expected because of their size against the land and the manner in which that is accentuated by point-of-view shots from a distance. To Nolan's credit, the crashing of planes and the physics of dog fighting feels authentic, but is it cinematically striking? Not really. The repetition of smoke trails from a distance and the difficulty the pilots have in keeping track of who has been shot down is important to show on camera, but not as satisfying as watching glorious explosions and a false sense of competence that is flaunted in many films with pilots.
Perhaps the most damning aspect of Dunkirk, ignoring the ridiculousness of much of the final twenty minutes, is Nolan's reliance on Hans Zimmer's score. It's classic Nolan anthems, so they detract from the naturalism that much of Dunkirk seems to be striving for. Even then, the final twenty minutes betray the entirety of the film that preceded it in such a way that justifies Zimmer's distracting music. The tension of being drowned alive in a sinking ship evaporates as Zimmer's score surfaces. Nolan's ability to practice restraint is predominantly on display for the bulk of Dunkirk, but his unnecessary use of music is the first sign that he can't betray his nature as a filmmaker and storyteller with a shortage of subtlety.
Christopher Nolan's Interstellar (2014), which is his greatest film, marked the beginning of a new Nolan – a filmmaker who can actually tell a story in an interesting way with heart. Dunkirk largely proves that he is shifting from the flaws of his earlier work, and yet it still falls apart in the end. Admirable for its lack of a firm center and overt narrative, Dunkirk manages to involve the audience in warfare through distance, but even that effort betrays itself as the film progresses. While it is not an excellent film, it's certainly worth seeing for its ability to make numbers of people as important as singular entities – the experience of the operation to rescue 400,000 soldiers is appropriately matched to a formal approach to narrative and aesthetic (for the most part). While Dunkirk has its own built in grandeur, its ability to feel vital is sabotaged by its own inconsistencies in vision... Be naturalistic and stick to it, but a shift to sentimentality and hope? Forget it.
My rating: 3/5