Dunkirk is an embarrassment of riches by any standard. Christopher Nolan seamlessly applies his specific technical artistry and puzzle-building sensibilities to his first venture into a film that isn’t a genre piece and one that is rooted in history. Dunkirk is a display of the evacuation from the French town of the same name in 1940, where Allied troops found themselves essentially surrounded by German forces while they wait for some miracle that will allow them to escape through the English Channel back home.
The film doesn’t have characters necessarily, though we do follow soldiers and some civilians, as they collectively serve as the character through which we experience the efforts made to get everyone out. It’s divided in three stories told through different time periods. The soldiers on the beach, which takes place over the course of a week, the civilians taking their boats and sailing to Dunkirk in order to aid the evacuation, which covers one day, and then the Royal Air Force taking out any German planes they come across, which covers one hour. These three stories are told intermingled, brilliantly edited together (by Nolan regular, Lee Smith), and rather easy to follow and understand. This use of time also serves as a way to build and maintain suspense. You don’t see any German soldiers in the entire film, but the idea of them surrounding the characters and getting ready to pick them off at any given moment, makes each second a grueling experience. Time is the real enemy of the movie, and the pressure of it is felt throughout, especially with Hans Zimmer’s score, which is almost constantly ticking in the background.
These three stories are captured beautifully, as the film was shot exclusively with large format film stock, much of which is captured in full IMAX, courtesy Nolan’s Interstellar DP, Hoyte van Hoytema. And the use of it is very effective. Nolan manipulates three key things in order the film to create the effect here, the first is time, and the second is space. Despite a canvas that is as big and expansive as possible, the film manages to create a sense of claustrophobia. You feel stuck, and with nowhere to go. And even with so many soldiers being present, there’s a certain loneliness and abandonment to the images. The clarity and depth of the full IMAX frame really puts you in the situation, giving you the same anxiety that the soldiers feel, be it on the beach, in the sea, or in the air.
The third element that Nolan utilizes very well is the sound. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s an absolute assault on your senses, but done with purpose. The sudden booms of gunshots will make you jump, the growing shriek of the German planes as they come closer will make you want to hide behind your seat, and I don’t think the presence of water has been shown this villainous since Titanic. Like with Interstellar, sometimes the mixing drowns out dialogue, making it a bit hard to understand, but in the case of Dunkirk, there is minimal dialogue to begin with, and it is never really necessary. Much of the story is told through the use of visuals and sound.
However, as much as there is to love about Dunkirk, a part of me was underwhelmed, and it took me a while before I could really pinpoint as to why. It’s the fact that the film doesn’t do much in terms of setting up what exactly led up to this point, and what is at stake. It’s so concerned with creating the experience, but forgets to showcase why this is important in the first place, and why this is such a big deal. Because the payoff is there at a sequence in the end where a character reads about the evacuation in a newspaper, but there was nothing in the beginning to set up the importance of it. I never got a sense of what made this particular moment so critical, and what we would lose if the soldiers were wiped out. I never got the sense of the bigger picture, and the ending sequence that I mentioned was too little too late.
This isn’t to say that Dunkirk is a bad or even a mediocre film, but it is the one thing that really prevents me from considering it to be a truly great one. It is undoubtedly a great roller coaster of a film, a wondrous achievement in technical wizardry, and a fairly above average war film. However, when compared to other films in Christopher Nolan’s filmography, it feels like a minor addition. It is impressive, for sure, but there isn’t anything about it that makes me want to revisit it, and I thinks it lacks a certain emotional depth that drew me in some of his better films. But I will say that it is absolutely worth seeing on the biggest and loudest screen at least once. Nolan is able to deliver a very one-of-a-kind WWII experience on the big screen, and despite its faults, he keeps on trying to create big budget experiences with more intelligence and craftsmanship that puts so many other blockbusters to shame.