Before I begin this dispassionate review of Dunkirk let me tell you that I am among the millions of devoted Christopher Nolan fans who believe that their favorite filmmaker can do no wrong with a movie after having achieved dizzying heights of success with critically acclaimed and commercially successful blockbusters like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Inception and Interstellar.
Every movie by Nolan is a deft combination of magnificent cinematography, awe-inspiring visuals, technical wizardry, a riveting soundtrack (almost always by Hans Zimmer) and intriguing characters that keep you emotionally invested in the movie. With Dunkirk, I went in with sky-high expectations but was left a bit disappointed after the movie finished. After all, this was being praised to high heavens by movie critics so I definitely anticipated nothing less than a sublime experience. What was Dunkirk actually like? Read on. No spoilers included.
The Good– A Dazzling IMAX Spectacle, Pulse-Pounding Soundtrack And Intense, Brutal War Action
The plot is fairly simple- this is a story of the mass evacuation of 400,000 Allied troops on a French beach during World War II. The movie begins with an opening salvo of visceral violence that will unnerve you- soldiers collect propaganda fliers reminding them how they have been surrounded by the enemy, an onslaught of gun fire and a somber burial of a soldier in the sand. However, after that, the story devolves into three perspectives of air, sea and land (and includes non-linear elements once again, which you will have no clue to connect with the linear narrative).
The stuff that works for Dunkirk is first and foremost the IMAX format, through which Nolan commendably showcases the grand scale of the movie, as the sprawling beaches, the looming threat from the enemy and immersive dogfights keep you mesmerized throughout the running time of 1 hour and 47 minutes. Make sure you DO NOT watch it on a smaller screen because the movie has been optimized for this format and anything less would make it a mediocre experience.
On a huge positive note, the unrelenting, pulse-pounding soundtrack by Hans Zimmer is the best thing about the movie, ensuring that the intensity never dies down as you get engulfed in tense moments tantamount to waiting for a bomb defusal as the clock ticks by. The soundtrack perfectly complements the brutal war action as you wade from one situation to another, anticipating the worst for the multiple protagonists in the movie but hope for them to keep their body and soul together.
The Bad- Lack of Engaging Characters and an Unsatisfying Payoff
Before I go on a rant why Dunkirk doesn’t fall in the league of great war movies like Saving Private Ryan, Hacksaw Ridge or Full Metal Jacket (to name a few), here is what Nolan has to say about his intent for the movie:
“The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story. I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters… The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? Will they be killed by the next bomb while trying to join the mole? Or will they be crushed by a boat while crossing?”
Though it is understandable that Nolan wants to depict a harrowing survival story by extrapolating the narrative of a few to the entire lot of soldiers in Dunkirk, the movie sadly gets muddled in its own grandiose and fails to focus on the most crucial part of a war film- drama, engaging characters with whom you can empathize with, and enough emotional heft to touch your core.
Instead, we follow three different timelines with thinly-sketched characters- Tom Hardy has even fewer lines than in Mad Max, Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles stand out among a group of trapped soldiers, while Mark Rylance has an impressive role as a concerned seafarer doing his best to save as many people as he can. It can be argued though that it is really not necessary to have in-depth character analysis in a movie that is trying to convey its emotions through visuals and audio, but once you leave the hall, you feel that something is amiss.
Also, since the movie is all about spectacle and grandeur, the different events did not lead to a satisfying payoff that showed the scale of the evacuation efforts. Again, Nolan can be lauded for not resorting to war-time jingoism like overdoing the emotions, heroics, and valor of the men at war (effectively used as a plot device by many filmmakers) or using blood and gore for sensationalism (there is none) but it also creates an experience that amplifies sound and fury more than anything else.
Nevertheless, Dunkirk is a movie that shows Nolan at the top of his craft, a filmmaker who loves creating a momentous celluloid experience for the avid fan of theaters (that explains his aversion towards 3D and preference for IMAX). It is an accomplished feat of the visual medium that deserves to be watched on the biggest IMAX screen with the loudest speakers possible.