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Review: Dunkirk (2017)

Dunkirk (2017)

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Premise: A dramatization of the evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk, France during World War II. Under siege from Axis forces, British and French soldiers wait to be rescued. Civilian ships are dispatched to cross the English Channel and pick up the soldiers.

What Works: Dunkirk deserves credit for being unlike virtually any other war film in recent memory. World War II is the most frequently dramatized military conflict and at this point Hollywood struggles to find stories that aren’t redundant with other films. Although the Dunkirk evacuation has been staged before, the approach taken by Christopher Nolan and his crew is unique. They avoid the style of classic Hollywood war movies like The Longest Day and Dunkirk is distinct from contemporary films like Saving Private Ryan as well. For one thing, Dunkirk is not sentimental. It isn’t filled with nationalistic rhetoric and the heroism of the movie is understated. For another, the movie concentrates on a specific event. Dunkirk takes place over a broad landscape with a great many characters but the film remains intimate. That tension is captured in the cinematography. Dunkirk was shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema and the cinematographer makes great use of widescreen compositions; wide shots of people and ships dwarfed by the vastness of the sea alternate with close ups of the character’s faces. Dunkirk is an intense cinematic experience. It has some spectacular set pieces but the filmmakers create a tone that dreads the violence instead of cheering it. That’s partly accomplished by the absence of the Nazis. With the exception of Axis airplanes, we never actually see the German military forces and yet their presence is felt throughout the movie in much the same way as the shark in Jaws. Dunkirk has a standout performance by Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, a civilian boater who pilots his ship to Dunkirk, and Tom Glynn-Carney as his son. Rylance in particular has a stoic everyday heroism about his performance that captures what the movie is about.

What Doesn’t: The sound mix of Dunkirk is distractingly poor. The dialogue is sometimes drowned out by the music score and the sound effects are obtrusive. The narrative of Dunkirk is a mess. Christopher Nolan, who is credited as a writer on Dunkirk as well as its director, frequently presents events out of sequence. That non-linear technique has generally been a strength of Nolan’s work as seen in movies like Batman Begins, The Prestige, and especially Memento. The editing style of those pictures told the story in a way that kept the viewer’s interest and created compelling juxtapositions of events and images. In Dunkirk, Nolan overplays his hand. The narrative jerks the viewer all over the place, leaping back and forth in the timeline and showing the same event from different vantage points. Instead of clarifying the action or giving new meaning to an event, the editing style is just confusing and sometimes aggravating. There’s no way for viewers to orient themselves and it’s frequently unclear how one event relates to another. This hurts the dramatic shape of the movie. The editing diminishes or destroys the connections between events and Dunkirk often plays as a random collection of events. As goes plotting, so goes characterization, and despite the huge cast of this movie there are very few characters in it. Aside from the civilian boat captain and his son, no one in Dunkirk is memorable or has a personality or defining characteristics. That may be central to Nolan’s goal with this movie—Dunkirk is about the totality of the event and cuts between the soldiers on the beach, the rescuers in their boats, and the pilots flying above—but without distinguishing anyone or giving them a meaningful subplot the movie is never emotionally engaging.

Bottom Line: There is a lot about Dunkirk that is admirable and impressive. But just as much of the movie is either misjudged or clumsy. The movie has tremendous showmanship but it is also emotionally flat and narratively incoherent.

Episode: #658 (July 30, 2017)