Writer & Director: Christopher Nolan
Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Composer: Hans Zimmer
Cast: Harry Styles, James D’Arcy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Barry Keoghan.
At some point in any director’s career comes the time to make a war movie, at least one. Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now), Stanley Kubrick (Full Metal Jacket), Oliver Stone (Platoon), Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down), Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds), Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan), Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line), Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers), Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge), Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), David O. Russell (Three Kings), Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties), Roman Polanski (The Pianist), Sam Mendes (Jarhead), Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter), Edward Zwick (Glory), Robert Altman (MASH), Robert Zemeckis (Allied), Peter Weir (Gallipoli), Werner Herzog (Rescue Dawn), Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor), Jean-Pierre Jeunet (A Very Long Engagement), Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator), Joe Wright (Atonement), Ang Lee (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk)… The list is endless, and those names only include directors who have made movies based on real wars, I didn’t even count fantasy or science fiction, which would then feature many more names.
Joining the ranks (pun intended) is Christopher Nolan. The director has spent his career making the kind of films that are mass market, but self-serious enough to have turned him into the go-to name people use to prove their film taste credibility. He benefits from impressive budgets, so that he can make movies that may be thin on story but gigantic in terms of effects and casting, which ultimately distracts from the mediocre work that forms as a result – he then criticizes anyone who does things a little differently. Nolan thinks very highly of his films, and so do his fans. I cannot count the number of times I’ve had an argument asking for proof of his value as a filmmaker. I will be the first to say that the structural ingenuity of Memento was a great trick. It turned a middle of the road story into a highly watchable and narratively interesting and surprising film. But after that? Insomnia was unwatchable. His Batman trilogy was fine, but people seem to have such a hard-on for three movies that are honestly all over the place, congested, and in serious lack of an editing hand and better screenwriters. The Prestige was forgettable, Interstellar was stupid, and Inception was good until its ending, which was such a copout and a lazy way to end a movie. But Dunkirk got great reviews, so it had to be really good right?! Meh…
Nolan seems to have gazed at his navel a little too much when crafting his newest film. He used an interesting time structure in Memento, and seems to have decided to employ a similar time-twist once again. This time to a much lesser effect. The film takes place in three different timelines: over a week, a day, and an hour. But all three are interwoven, edited together, causing the narrative to flip forward and backwards for no discernible reason whatsoever.
The color palette of the film is dark: greys, greens, browns, and not much else. I get that it’s a war film, I truly do, but the depressive mood that Nolan has chosen is pervasive and unrelenting. His concept of war is one of emptiness and vacancy. The enemy is never seen once throughout the film, only the shots and bombs (and a couple of planes, whose pilots are never shown). Not that there’s much of anything at all throughout the two hour viewing experience. I have to wonder how long the screenplay was. I would be shocked if it was longer than 30 pages, as there was hardly any dialogue throughout. What little dialogue there was, much like Interstellar, was drowned out by awful sound editing and mixing, making conversations completely inaudible, even when there wasn’t any shooting going on. Even the action is mostly boring and hard to tell what is going on, as the British army is shot at or attacked while eating toast and drinking tea, boats are bombed with little to no context, just messy story and narrative abounds.
The cast is made up mostly of unknowns. This is one of the only really good choices of the film. War, and its casualties, are mostly nondescript. Many have family members who perished in battle, but the numbers of dead are often so many that one cannot wrap one’s head around those lives that were lost. The notion of the grave of the unknown soldier in most western countries is a testament to this. And then there’s the bizarre choice to utilize Harry Styles. All the other soldiers without rank are played by unknowns who are making their feature film debut, and I guess so is Styles, but he is most definitely non unknown. As the most recognizable member of boyband One Direction, I didn’t understand his casting and the choice to make him such a focus of the film, especially because with the exception of eating toast and hiding in boats, he really doesn’t do much of anything. Whatever, I’m over it. Some bigger names play army officers or pilots (James D’Arcy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy) but they have such little screen time (or face time) that their roles don’t amount to much. The only exception is Mark Rylance playing a civilian making his way across the English Channel in order to bring home some of the fighters, his purpose and determination are the only things that make sense about this movie (in spite of something that happens aboard the ship that was both unnecessary and straight up bizarre – a truly what the fuck moment halfway through the movie).
Ultimately the film is fine, but what I don’t get is the praise being bestowed upon it, heralding it as an early Oscar favorite. Take away the budget and the movie kinda sucks. There is zero character development, pretty much no narrative, and even the story itself feels like it never really needed to be told, not as a standalone movie at least. It’s overall a footnote of the second world war, a moment in which the British soldiers were rescued by civilians on the French coast and brought safely bake to the island. The history is uplifting and a nice story of patriotism and narrates how when a country is at war, the battle affects everyone and not just the soldiers. I just don’t see how this was the story to do that. World War II has been mined for cinematic stories for the past 70+ years and the films of the past few years are proof that perhaps there’s not too much left to say. Inevitably there will be more movies made about this war, there always are, and it’s likely one will come out that will change my mind and I will love it and see its value. It just won’t be Dunkirk.