f”It’s not enough to say that “Dunkirk” is Christopher Nolan’s best film. It’s one of the best war films ever made, distinct in its look, in its approach and in the effect it has on viewers.” – Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle)
I usually find it reductive to challenge the opinions of others. Opinions, by nature, are subjective, and movies, especially, tend to impact people in different ways. Just the other day, one of my good friends went on a rant about how terrible Wonder Woman is, and for an aspiring filmmaker like myself who pays attention to such things as composition and characters arcs, any dissenting opinion about a “great film” is bound to get me riled up. In situations like these, considering contrary opinions is tantamount, whether it be about Wonder Woman, Beyonce’s dress at the VMAs, or god forbid, politics. In this instance, however, when numerous film critics and Nolan mega-fans are trying to convince everyone that Dunkirk is one of the best war films ever made, I feel compelled to put my perspective into the mix — for consideration and thought.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is not a masterpiece. Far from it. It is definitely not the best that Nolan has done. However, it is undeniable that Dunkirk is a riveting experience from beginning to end.
Christopher Nolan has a tremendous grip on the film’s visual language. The cinematography and the stark imagery (sans any exposition or excess dialogue) tell the story — a bold move for a war epic mounted on a $100 million dollar budget. This is an undoubtedly auteurist, yet inspired, move. Nolan’s name is synonymous with spectacle with practical effects, and Dunkirk is no exception. The set-pieces are thrilling and exceptionally moving. The film tracks the battle of Dunkirk in three narratives: land, air, and sea. The convergence of these narratives is incredibly well-crafted and inventively edited. Lee Smith’s editing follows a “unity of place” structure rather than “unity of time,” opting for non-linearity — yet another bold move. While this has the potential to undercut tension, the filmmaking keeps these flashbacks (of sorts) consistently engaging. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is revelatory, with its inspired use of tension-building dolly shots and visceral hand-held.The visual juxtapositions are grim yet strikingly beautiful. He utilizes the IMAX film cameras to their fullest. Dunkirk reminds one of early studio-era Hollywood filmmaking, a time without green-screen gloss and computer-generated effects.
While Dunkirk is consistently thrilling, it is a film that strives to find a balance between spectacle and intimacy, with moments of palpable emotion. However, they are just that: moments. Amongst the filmmaking craft, Nolan often denies access to character throughout Dunkirk, instead focusing on the situation. While this seems like a conscious decision, it is one that did not resonate with me. Yes, it would be counterproductive to have the soldiers talk about their pregnant girlfriends back home, as it would be unrealistic in the immediacy of the situation. At the same time, it is imperative to understand and identify with the characters that populate a film — at the least, some visual access. This is not to say that there is no character access at all. There is an effort to characterize the people in the land and sea narratives.
Overall, it just wasn’t enough for me.
The great war films of our time, like Apocalyse Now and Saving Private Ryan, tell their stories through full-bodied characters, and emotionally devastate us by the end. Yet, Nolan’s approach in Dunkirk is not concerned with characters, and is instead focused on the larger situation and atmosphere. While this is entirely novel and laudable, I can’t deny this feeling of coldness — a coldness that comes not from the situation, but rather from my desire to know more about these characters that I watched for an hour and 45 minutes. But maybe this is exactly what Nolan wants me to feel. Did he deny character access to communicate a greater reality about war — that we are not meant to know who they are and rather what they represent?
Nolan’s sheer filmmaking ability makes up for this dearth of character development in many respects. It is a war epic crafted like a Hitchcockian thriller. Nolan continues to prove why he’s been an inspiration to me and other aspiring filmmakers/film buffs. Yet, by the end, I still possess this feeling that something emotional was missing, and I have to go with my gut. Dunkirk largely works due to Nolan and his team’s technical brilliance, and it leans on this for moments of tension and audience engagement. For me, though, Nolan’s holistic, character-detached approach undercuts the immersion.
That being said, go see it in 70 mm or IMAX.
4 civilian boats out of 5