Christopher Nolan’s war epic is immersive art but devoid of much-needed historical and dramatic context
Film Score: 6/10
After Dunkirk ended, I sat for a moment to collect my thoughts and wound up talking to a gentleman in the next row. He said he’d worked in film and studied World War II. When asked what he thought of the film, he said, “If you didn’t know anything about Dunkirk coming in, you wouldn’t learn a thing.”
I’d done some mild research before my viewing, so I knew the history. After several failed attempts by the Allied forces to break the German advance through France, British and French troops were forced to evacuate from the port town of Dunkirk on the northern end of the English Channel. German forces had surrounded the area and threatened to break through before an evacuation could be organized, prompting Britain to consider the possibility of conditional surrender. But in one of the most widely debated decisions of the war, the German forces halted for three days to regroup and ensure the Allies couldn’t break through the line. This was enough time to set a defensive perimeter – held mainly by the French – while British naval ships and smaller private vessels ferried over 338,000 Allied troops off the beach.
However, as the gentleman in my theater commented, if you didn’t know any of this going into the movie, you weren’t going to leave much the wiser. All the viewer learns is that the Germans are drawing close and the men can’t get off the beach fast enough, with a few additional lines to hint at Britain’s surrender. There’s no historical context. The importance of this “colossal military disaster” (Winston Churchill) isn’t examined until the final few moments of the film. And the three different timelines of the Mole, Sea, and Air are so confusing it took me half the movie to sort them out.
But Christopher Nolan wasn’t aiming for a history lesson or a documentary. He wanted to place viewers in the midst of the Dunkirk evacuation and immerse them in the sights and sounds of that beach. He wanted to create an experience.
Dunkirk was shot using 70mm IMAX cameras, which means the frame is twice as wide as normal film, creating expansive shots that, according to Nolan, are like “virtual reality without the goggles.” The format allows him to capture the vastness of sea and sky, the endless expanse of beach and foamy surf, and the thousands of men standing in rank waiting to be evacuated. It truly is visually stunning, which is why Warner Bros. has made Dunkirk the largest 70mm film release in a quarter-century.
The sounds are technically wonderful and add to the immersive feeling. The groaning of ships, the shuffling of men, the scream of planes, and the whistling of incoming weapons all contribute to the experience Nolan is trying to create. In the first ten minutes of the film all you can hear are the sounds of war, while the men remain virtually silent. Humanity has been swallowed whole, with only one lone voice crying out in desperation, “Where’s the bloody air force?” The opening sequence is amazing and I love it. If you go to see Dunkirk in theaters it should be because of this.
But after that the men continue to speak very sparingly, and suddenly the sounds of war give way to an incessant soundtrack that refuses to let you forget that the situation is supposed to be suspenseful. Hans Zimmer has recently developed a nasty habit of scoring films by giving each section of his orchestra a single bar of perpetually repeating notes and then introducing them one at a time. About every twenty seconds he’ll add a blaring brass note or synthetic run and call it complex. It’s annoying, loud, and numbing.
Ultimately that’s what happened with the whole film: I went numb to it. The sound mixing was excellent and will almost certainly win awards, but after an hour I’d already heard it all before. The cinematography is wonderful to behold and also award-worthy, but by the end of the film I’d already seen the beach fifty different ways and the ocean fifty others. Nolan’s desire to immerse viewers in the film worked wonderfully for the first ten to fifteen minutes. After that the awe wore off and I found myself needing a reason to continue the experience.
Not even the cast of typically excellent actors was convincing enough to return some feeling to my viewing experience. The script just wasn’t built to foster connections between the characters and viewers, eschewing dialogue and dramatic context wherever possible. Mark Rylance delivered the strongest performance as calm and steadfast Mr. Dawson. Fionn Whitehead in the lead of Tommy was a close runner-up; he handled his lack of lines with aplomb. And other than a cringe-worthy final scene, I’ll even give admit that Harry Styles can act. They did everything they could with a script that wasn’t meant to do anything except demonstrate man’s survival.
I wanted Dunkirk to be better. As art it was fresh and intriguing, but as a film I found it overwhelmingly underwhelming. The sounds and the visuals and the soundtrack all clamored for attention, but after the first fifteen minutes I had little reason to stay. Even though I was successfully immersed in Nolan’s creation, I wasn’t learning any history, I wasn’t learning about the characters, so I just stopped caring.
If you find yourself wanting to see Dunkirk, see it in theaters and definitely see it in 70mm or in one of 31 theaters showcasing 70mm IMAX format. As a piece of technical art I’d give 8.5/10 for the film, and even higher if it weren’t for Zimmer’s soundtrack which really is that irritating. Otherwise I’d say you can skip it. As the gentleman from my theater put it: “I didn’t like this one.”