Last weekend, we went to see Dunkirk, an historical war drama written and directed by Christopher Nolan. As you may know, I enjoy historical war movies – the operative word being “historical.”
The film is named for the WWII event that took place in the town of Dunkirk (Dunkerque) on the shores of northern France: the rescue of allied forces hopelessly hemmed in by the Nazis.
I didn’t know anything about this event at the start of the movie; neither did I know much about it by the end. Dunkirk didn’t have a lot to teach. One thing I did learn is that I can gauge the appeal of a film by my degree of willingness to use the restroom in the middle of it. In the case of Dunkirk, the slightest urgency in my bladder had me rushing out of the theater.
Yes. I’d eagerly anticipated seeing Dunkirk, so it was with disappointment that I had no problem at all getting up to use the restroom about an hour in. I was disappointed because I feared missing… nothing. There was nothing worth the struggle of ignoring my bladder so I could sit through the remainder of the movie.
I wasn’t held in my seat by suspense (there was no suspense). I wasn’t invested in any character (there were no developed characters). I wasn’t afraid I’d miss out on great acting or brilliant writing going into the dialogue (there was very little in the way of dialogue).
Dunkirk starts out promising. There’s a scrappy kid on a mission to survive. He’s got his wits about him, and he seems resilient and resourceful. But the film’s human component fails to evolve beyond that. We never get to know the kid. What remains is a maelstrom of impersonal and chaotic drama that consumes the film, resulting in turbulence that had us fidgeting with annoyance and boredom.
I mean, we were utterly bored.
We yawned through scenes that seemed cut, altered, and pasted throughout the film. Did Nolan decide that after reaching the apotheosis of his vision in one scene, he could get away with making a few changes and then “saving as” so he could plug it in here and there? It was as if he re-worked the scenes repeatedly until he could use them to string the film together.
So yes… after an hour of this, I had no fear of missing anything in the 10 or so minutes I’d be out using the restroom.
Let me mention, too, the nuisance that is the film’s soundtrack. Dunkirk’s “music” is a ceaseless cacophony that plays too great of a part in that above-mentioned turbulence. The musical score could have used at least a measure or two of restraint, even a little bit of push-and-pull… not only to give us a break from the noise, but to employ the sound as a device of suspense-building.
Making it all worse was the fact that I later read about the event and found myself wondering whether the film was in fact historical or merely based on historical events. From what I read, it was more the latter. We saw fewer than 10 boats, fewer than five aircraft, and merely one or two hundred troops in peril. For all of its powerful, sweeping cinematography – the film’s great strength – we saw barely a fraction of the magnitude of the evacuation of Dunkirk. If Nolan’s strategy included condensing the event in order to give us a focal point representative of the event as a whole, he forgot to include in that strategy, as I said, an iota of character development to keep us engaged.
In summary, Dunkirk is inaccurate and repetitive. It’s somewhat difficult to follow as its perspective swings from land (specified as “mole”) , air, and sea, which made it often unclear as to where we were in time. The film has no human quality to speak of, which is why, perhaps, we felt no sense of profound triumph at the end of it. If you’re a fan of Nolan’s non-linear storytelling style and you wouldn’t mind seeing it applied to the telling of an historical event, then you may enjoy this movie.
We were drawn to Dunkirk by its trailer. We didn’t suspect that the merits of the film would stop there. We would have been better off leaving it at the trailer’s sweeping scenes, its enticing glimpses of sturm und drang and suggestions of gravitas promising an outcome of stirring heroism worthy of a film made more than 70 years later.