Let’s talk about Christopher Nolan. Memento, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight are powerhouses of cinema. They’re incredible films that helped cement Nolan into the public as the best director of our generation. With such praise like that, he has simply failed to live up to the level of his previous projects. And yet the film community continues to laud all of his subsequent movies as the masterpieces they are so decidedly not. Do not misunderstand me, I do like Inception and Interstellar, but they are far from the titans of film that some of his earlier work was. Unfortunately, Dunkirk has befallen the same fate.
Let’s talk about the strengths of the film first. This movie has some truly thrilling sequences and gripping portrayals of wartime suspense that are not often found in PG-13 films of this genre. One of Nolan’s biggest filmmaking strengths is his ability to create visual vistas out of the simplest of things. He captures massive crowds on the sand in a way that feels incredibly visually stimulating rather than drab and clustered as would be the case in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. In fact, all of the cinematography in this movie is absolutely breathtaking, Hoyte Van Hoytema was the DP and brought a beautiful eye to the film’s canvas. Hanz Zimmer, of course, did the music for this movie and once again hit it out of the park. He really deserves to be commended for his work on this score as it is considerably different from some of his other productions, while still being distinctly his. However, for all the gallant music and stunning cinematography, this movie has some staggering narrative issues that cannot be ignored.
I wish I could say this film has a stellar script, but it really doesn’t. There is absolutely no characterization for the entire first act of the movie. Beyond that, most of it was simply imposed by the viewers themselves as we had been with the characters long enough just to settle in with them. For about half the movie I could not tell the difference between Fionn Whitehead’s character and his French friend. I’d declare these two to be the main characters, but the movie doesn’t have any main characters. It favors all of the characters equally. That, paired with the fact that none of them are named or even given many personality traits, makes it much harder to empathize with them on a level beyond the fact that they are in a harrowing position. The film follows three different groups of people but rather than formulating an A story, a B story, and a C story, it treats every storyline as a B story. In addition, it is told nonlinearly, making for a genuinely confusing screenplay. But in the end, that might not be a terrible thing.
Christopher Nolan is an auteur filmmaker through and through, and I thoroughly believe that this is the movie he was intending to make. He wanted to make a movie that immersed you in a world that we have never been in, and at that, he succeeded. I have to applaud him at his tenacious pursuit of realism, utilizing real planes and boats and emulating what it was probably like to actually be on that beach while still maintaining a cinematic quality. But on the other hand, I still have to think about how Saving Private Ryan accomplished the same thing while still creating a captivating character-driven story. Some people will leave the theater really satisfied with the movie that they received. I wish I could be that person. I wanted to love this movie since the acting, directing, music, and cinematography were all so good, but the story just fell short for me. I want you to form your own opinion, but I’ll warn you this far: If you hear people declaring this to be a masterpiece, take it with a grain of salt. It might not be seen the same way in ten years.
All images are from Dunkirk, a film by Warner Brothers.