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David Poland

By David Poland

Review: Dunkirk (spoiler-free)

Christopher-Nolans-Dunkirk-IMAX-poster-croppedIt was the best of films… it was the worst of films…

Dunkirk is the ultimate film critic Christmas present sitting at the base of the tree on the most beautiful of Christmas mornings with all of the relatives you loved back from the dead (in a nice way) and there to enjoy every moment of your cinematic pleasure.

And… Dunkirk is an overly-refined ticking-clock movie without a clock or any significant insight into the power of what happened on that beach in seven days in May 77 years ago.

How can Dunkirk be both these things?

It takes a genius. And Christopher Nolan is a genius filmmaker. It is impossible to imagine that he won’t, finally, get his first Oscar nomination for directing this… because it as directed a film as you can imagine. The images are big and bold and every frame is a picture of skill and elegance. The IMAX experience is different than the 70mm experience – one feels like uncharted territory and the other just gorgeous – but either way, it is a visual feast.

It also takes the myopia of genius to make a movie about 300,000 people, reduce it to 12 of them and not worry about the scale of the human experience. I am not unaware of or unsympathetic to the idea of reducing something of massive scale down to a handful of people who stand as symbols. And Dunkirk tips its hat to that… but only kinda. It’s a movie that shows you massive numbers of men in landscape view, rarely harking back to massiveness of the effort… never even suggesting for a moment that 700 small boats came to the rescue. (I would estimate that the largest group of boats we saw numbered 20 or less.) And in a movie so full of starkness and imagery, you may be too busy to notice that you are being Forrest Gump-ed by the lead character.

By the end of the movie, a character has to tell us what was meant to happen on that beach and what actually happened on that beach or we would not know. (And don’t even get me started on the failure to explain what “The Mole” is until late in the film and then only in passing. It’s the pier.)

There is nothing inherently wrong with the film focusing on a young grunt trying to survive the week. But handsome as he is – and this is a movie of handsome men – he is a blank canvas that Nolan uses to tour the audience through a variety of stories that I assume really happened to someone on that beach. The audience never knows what our protagonist knows or even what he wants, aside from survival.

The problem with that is that even though the movie is a beautiful book of images from that period, meticulously and magically brought to life, I don’t know what Christopher Nolan feels about this whole enterprise. The film is not devoid of feelings or comment. Almost all of the emotion there is comes from Mark Rylance’s character, whose motives and ideas of the world become clear.

There is a major point about/in the film that is also a major spoiler, so I will hold off for now. But I do feel like this event and the meaning behind it for Nolan is a major part of the conversation about this movie. It has to be deliberate choice by Nolan to make it so singular an event in a film in which death in around every corner. But… later.

The movie comprises three distinct parts; Land, Air, and Sea, each of which has characters associated with it and through all of which the lead character wanders. Branagh is mostly there to look stoic and to be Basil Exposition. Hardy is one of two pilots who are fully committed to doing all they can do to protect the men hoping to escape the beach. (His mumbling covered by a mask seems almost like self-homage at points.) And there is Rylance, who captains one of the private ships and has a teen son and a teen family friend on board. The Rylance segment is where almost all the emotion – aside from being threatened by bullets, fire, or drowning – exists in this film. And there is the central character, the silent thread, that someone manages to have every possible experience of The Dunkirk Miracle in two days.

I recommend that anyone who loves movies see Dunkirk and if you can find a way to see it in IMAX, spend the time and money to do that. You should have this experience. And you should take from it what you instinctively take. Don’t listen to critics, pro or con. Just go have the experience.

That said, Dunkirk falls well short of a masterpiece because I was watching a filmmaker do something beautiful, but I was not filled with the spirit of Dunkirk. In a very intensive 106 minutes, I think I got hit emotionally four or five times. None of it sustained.

Near the end of a second viewing, I was struck with a comparison to Chariots of Fire, of all things. In that film, Hugh Hudson balanced the dryness of the British temperament with deep passions of two runners, one who ran for respect and the other who ran for God. I later thought about how unique the imagery of the track racing was at the time, and even how the Vangelis score (which became a cliché  in an instant) was unique at that time. Among the things that makes Chariots work better than Dunkirk for me, is the emotion the lies in the choices that confront both runners and moments of insight and emotion like Sam Mussabini punching through his hat, alone in a room where he is hiding, when he finds out his charge has won. One of the few memorable emotional beats in Dunkirk is a simple line from an old man who understands better than young men what is of value. Not quite grand emotion… but the closest to even subtle celebration we will get here.

Still, only the Rylance character (and for a moment, his son) gets to confront morality in a real way in the film. (There is a moment with the boys that comes close, but circumstance keeps morality from being resolved in a real way.)

I can’t agree with many critics that this is a great war film. It’s not really about war. It is about one element of war, commitment. The war and those 299,888 men are really a backdrop. No one is making choices about this war and their role in it, except at the most micro level. Even when choices come up, the die is really cast.

All the great war films are steeped in choice, often from the first frame to the last. And indeed, the most emotional moment of the film surrounds the rare character who makes a choice of a sweet whim and suffers from fate, not war.

Dunkirk also puts me in mind of The Revenant, which I had very different issues with, but which was also a remarkable piece of filmmaking. My issues with the movie aside, Iñárritu devoted a lot of the film to the deep emotional drives of those characters.

Less of Dunkirk would have served the movie’s ambitions better. The movie is tightly cut… not what I am saying. I don’t agree with Todd McCarthy’s conclusion, but “Dunkirk is an impressionist masterpiece” is right on line with the truth. It’s an impressionist piece. So the concessions it makes to traditional filmmaking don’t serve that well. I would prefer a 100% commitment to impressionism. Of course, the financing might go away. So I get why the film swings back and forth between pure, you-figure-it-out-audience art and a Movie. As a reslut, I was left surprisingly hungry leaving the theater.

I had no expectations walking into the theater. And seeing it a second time disabused me of any notions that might lingered. I am happy Christopher Nolan got to make the film he wanted to make. I am glad Dunkirk exists. But I don’t think much of it will stick, outside of cinema studies class and great moving image packages. I still want to see it again in IMAX. It is absolutely beautiful. I can’t say often enough, do go.

It’s just… I wanted to walk out of Dunkirk with my heart beating. And I walked out with my brain humming. Frustrating for me. Not for everyone.

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25 Responses to “Review: Dunkirk (spoiler-free)”

  1. Hunter Tremayne says:

    As everyone is saying it’s the heart-beater of the year, it might be time to visit a cardiologist.

  2. Stella's Boy says:

    Yes please don’t have an opinion different from everyone else’s. That is bad film criticism.

  3. palmtree says:

    “And I walked out with my brain humming.”

    I’d say that describes pretty much every Nolan film.

  4. Sergio says:

    Haha both comments above say it all

  5. The Pope says:

    David, you ponder what Nolan feels about the whole enterprise.

    For me, he chose this story of all WW2 stories because for once it is a mission movie where the civilians come to the rescue of the military. History tells us that the retreating men considered themselves failures and cowards yet were welcomed as heroes. Why? For the simple reason that their survival kept alive the hope that… “this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” could hold out against the darkness.

    Unlike almost all of Nolan’s previous pictures, this came layered with irony; good people doing bad things, acts of weakness turning out to be heroic.

    To my utter surprise and great delight, I found the film deeply moving.

  6. Sideshow Bill says:

    I can’t wait to see this tomorrow. That’s all I can say right now.

  7. Movieman says:

    Gotta say that Dave’s review seems pretty dead-on to me.
    Yes, it’s a dazzling technical achievement, but far too emotionally distant.
    Nolan has often been knocked as a “cold” director (although I think “Inception” is pretty damn moving), and “Dunkirk” proves why.
    Kubrick got the same rap, but in a movie-by-movie comparison (see–among others–“Paths of Glory,” “Lolita,” “Full Metal Jacket,” even “2001” for the devastating death-of-HAL scene), Kubrick seems like a big softie next to Nolan.
    Hope it does well because ambitious, expensive non-franchise studio movies need all the help they can get. But I wouldn’t begin counting Oscar (wins) just yet. It’s only July, plus I’ve got a feeling it’s a movie that won’t play especially well on TV (which is where the majority of Academy voters will likely see it).

  8. Pj says:

    Agree with Movieman. It’s a visceral in your face experience but there’s something missing. Even Gravity had some emotion, even if it was cheap. This film moved far too fast for any of it to linger.

  9. MarkVH says:

    I’m generally not much of a Nolan fan as I find that his limitations as a writer tend to kneecap his ambitions as a director – and make no mistake, he’s got limitations there as well – as he generally mistakes propulsive forward momentum for storytelling. But I think that serves him well here, and have to say I found Dunkirk pretty great. Weirdly, I can completely understand people’s issues with the movie, but I found the problems to mostly be strengths. Make no mistake, it’s got its issues. Nolan ::still:: can’t figure out where to put exposition so he dumps it all on poor Kenneth Branagh. And some of the structural cleverness leads to cutting away from critical scenes at exactly the wrong time. In the end, though, I was knocked out by the cumulative effect of the thing, which struck me as reminiscent of David Lean’s In Which We Serve (a GREAT movie everyone should see, btw). Not sure it’s a masterpiece, but I found it a terrific piece of filmmaking and Nolan’s best to date.

  10. Sideshow Bill says:

    Still getting my feelings together on the film. DUNKIRK is surely a rousing and impressive technical feat, and it works as an impressionistic experience if not a narrative one. There are moments of great terror and emotion. Yet for some reason I feel a little underwhelmed. I need to think about it more. But I do think you should see it, on a big screen with great sound. I wasn’t able to see it in IMAX or 70MM, but it still played great.

  11. Ryan says:

    Agree with the underwhelmed part. The flying sequences were extremely well done, although I felt more connection to Hardy as Bane than I did to him as the pilot #2. Also weird that Harry Styles has about the same amount of dialogue as Kenneth Branagh! Worth the time for the visuals and sound alone.

  12. leahnz says:

    i think it was on the MCN twitter feed someone quipped about nolan being the most ‘college republican’ film-maker ever, and this pretty much sums it up

    (tho being excruciatingly English, ‘republican’ is not the right nomenclature — he’s ‘new generation tory’, buttoned up and down, turned up to the meetings slightly late in a well-made suit with one casual wrinkle to sit quietly at the back, slipping out before the kettle boils for tea and scones after, which to him is subversive and weird and in doing so he avoids a label, labels are so common)

    and how i wish people would stop comparing nolan to kubrick (not re: movieman’s comment above specifically just in general where i’ve seen it, inexplicably, i’ll never understand it). as film-makers they are nothing alike, for so many reasons, not the least of which is Kubrick’s meticulous formalism, composition and detached observation serves as a contrast to (and even subversion of) his social commentary and examination of human nature, where the twisted and the weird float below a thin sheet of ice. i’d think weirdness and both good-and-bad trips were familiar bedfellows in kubrick’s psyche

    not so nolan, who’s film-making feels relentlessly one note and above board, like the weirdest, most subversive thing he’s ever done is watch ‘quadrophenia’ and pretend to take a tab of acid but it didn’t stick to his stiff upper lip but rather his fingertip and he wiped it off in his pocket when no-one was looking. ‘memento’ is the closest he’s come to digging into messy human emotion in his work and it appears to have scared him off but good, and what remains is a relentlessly dour and frustratingly shallow, technically adept veneer (certainly not ‘genius’ in my book)

    ‘dunkirk’ kind of feels like Nolan’s response after reading criticisms of him as a fairly middling director of action and he thought ‘I’LL SHOW YOU!!!’. (though outwardly his expression remained blank)
    relentless and immersive ‘you are here in the war with lots of non-descript pretty boys’ film-making that has urgency but lacks the dimension of the human heart and soul in those dire moments, giving war its true horror

    ETA i’d think ‘dunkirk’ will play for UK auds in a way that it may not elsewhere, with the mythology of the Dunkirk battle part of the Brit psyche

  13. Rodd Hibbard says:

    I understand all the comments that have been made about a lack of emotional connection with the characters in this film. When the credits rolled I realised I only remembered one characters name. I don’t think, however, that this inability to empathise with the characters is particularly the problem of Mr. Nolan. One of my major problems with films at the moment is that I just don’t care about the characters, or what happens to them. It is mainly only in independent and some international films that the directors and/or writers allow you to identify with characters and their lives – it’s as if they were afraid that if they did, they would be accused of being sentimental or, heaven forbid (to them) Capraesque (I still love Capra’s movies). In attempting to be realistic, they deny that sentimentality is part of reality. I found Dunkirk to be exciting and thrilling, at times, but did I care, no, and I should have. By the way I thought the music and sound contributed amazingly to the suspense.

  14. Ray Pride says:

    Or, everything you describe was intentional?

  15. leahnz says:

    but why would you intentionally make a war movie that leaves out the horror intrinsic to war, the human horror?

    i don’t know about anyone else but i have (or had) WW2, Korea, Vietnam, desert storm 1/dumbass storm 2 vets in my family/extended family and the horror and human cost of seeing what you see, hearing the stories of what it was like in combat, it’s so devastating and dreadful, my uncle still gets involuntary tears in his eyes when he talks about Vietnam, seeing his friends get blown to bits and shooting people, the horror of it. i don’t buy the weirdly (but not surprisingly) sanitised nolan version that has nothing to say beyond ‘being in a war is intense and loud and sometimes you survive and sometimes you don’t’

  16. Ryan says:

    Ray-the intention argument is fine, and I think the idea of Nolan trying to ‘paint a canvas’ of war is probably valid, but then why use the Churchill stuff and the newspaper article about heroism to try to solidify emotional connections that just weren’t there. I think I wanted to feel horrified that these particular people I just spent two hours with were being told there would be more hardship and sacrifice needed from them, and instead I got ‘meh…war-what are you gonna do?’ I liked it, I just don’t get the masterpiece comments being thrown around.

  17. Dr Wally Rises says:

    ‘but why would you intentionally make a war movie that leaves out the horror intrinsic to war, the human horror?’


    No, just… I saw Dunkirk here in the U.K. yesterday and, honestly, found it the most emotionally charged and devastating movie in a long time, and I just don’t agree with that at all. I’m pretty good at taking the temperature of an audience, and I can tell you that everyone in the theatre was deeply affected by the film. Now, my guess, Leah, is that you’re not British,and don’t understand that the British nature of stoicism and reserve can permit expressions of deep emotion from gestures, glances, and terse statements. I genuinely can’t understand how you can claim that Nolan and his movie have left out, as you call it, the human horror intrinsic to war. You want a for-instance? Remember the scene at the end, with the late-middle age guy handing out blankets to the returning soldiers and not being able to look at them? You didn’t get what was being communicated there? If you’re British, you get it. You get that the grey-haired guy is almost certainly of an age where he would have been in the trenches a quarter century earlier. You get that he can’t bear to look as he sees history repeating itself with a new generation. You honestly think the human horror of war isn’t being communicated fluently by the director there?

    ‘But all we did was survive’
    ‘That’s enough’.

    I wanted to freaking bawl there and then. Or how about the moment that the Rylance character is told that George has died. That extraordinary actor tells you everything you need to know there and then without the need for a single word. Cue me wanting to well up again. Or the way (again, it’s telling that American viewers haven’t picked up on the significance of this),Hans Zimmer interpolates Elgar’ s hymn ‘I Vow To Thee To My Country’ in the score at a very particularly chosen moment.

    So you’re right to say that this is a movie that will play very differently in Britiain, but if you think that Dunkirk is merely a coldly adequate technical exercise, then I absolutely don’t agree.

    Incredible movie.

  18. EtGuild2 says:

    “It was the best of films, it was the worst of films…”

    Christopher Nolan’s whole career, summed up in a dozen words. I give tons of credit to Nolan…he is a master craftsman. But his commitment to certain elements of formalism….visual scale, traditional filmmaking elements….all at the expense of writing, seem to captivate certain audiences like rabbits watching videos of giant carrots who lose track of the fact they can’t bite the meat of the carrot.

    His films are flawed. Deeply flawed in many cases due to unnecessary narrative incontenence that seems like a byproduct of ending up needing something to sell in tandem with successfully editing stuff into an admittedly flawless looking inch of its life (TDKR, Interstellar)

    To me this was another gorgeous spectacle, an examplar of traditional film ideas and methods as actual money generating things…with a ham-fisted, shove in your face message generated by below-the-level-needed writing, and more uneven acting.

  19. EtGuild2 says:

    @movieman, nail on the head : )

  20. Park Tsong says:

    The idea of an elemental stripped down haiku of a war movie is interesting. But the story of Dunkirk is so interesting and moving and sentimental I think it was the wrong story for the approach.

    However a British psyche has been so drenched in Dunkirk mythology that Nolan’s counter intuitive approach may feel an interesting dierection.

    But to me I want to see the full blown testament to human decency, the homefront chips in and the litttle boats save the day version of the Dunkirk story.

    Also I the winks about the queuing up and the tea probably play better to Brits. And probably a bunch of other little references that went over my non brit head.

    Nolan made a movie for the British (and himself).

  21. leahnz says:

    “Now, my guess, Leah, is that you’re not British,and don’t understand that the British nature of stoicism and reserve can permit expressions of deep emotion from gestures, glances, and terse statements.”

    i felt like i should respond to say no i’m not british Dr Wally but the queen is on my money and i do have a fairly good notion of british stoicism and stiff-upper-lip-ness, which has considerable roots in our culture here, similarly staunch and undemonstrative in many respects.

    i do understand what you’re saying and i’m glad you feel so passionate about ‘dunkirk’. my feeling, trying to distil it down, is that a certain human element is missing from the relentless sound and fury (and drowning, by far the most disturbing aspect of the film for me personally), it just doesn’t feel realistic in the depiction of human behaviour – british or not – when the shit goes down, people and their reactions are very messy, emotional and unpredictable. the whole thing feels quite clinical with Nolan’s stiff-upper-lip sensibility preventing any sort of deeper look at the human condition during the horrors of war with virtually no time spent on characterisation or nuance of story, ‘dunkirk’ to me feels more like a simple ‘disaster movie’, empty spectacle rather than a human story.

  22. Dr Wally Rises says:

    Thanks for a considered response Leah, the movie spoke to me in ways it didn’t speak to you, and I’m sorry for you. This isn’t a mathematical equation, after all.

  23. The Pope says:

    I’m Irish and the movie kicked me right in the bollox.

  24. leahnz says:

    geeze don’t be sorry for me. after the promise of ‘memento’ there’s diminishing returns in nolan and his at times both clinical and dour, heavy-handed style (quite a feat actually), the salivating over him as some kind of great film-maker worthy of comparison to the likes of kubrick for example is kind of hilarious and also annoying AF

  25. Pete B says:

    A bit late to the party as I finally got to see Dunkirk.

    Did anyone else see it in IMAX and come out with a headache? My ears were ringing it was so loud.

    And for all this talk of it lacking the horror of war…


    What about poor George?

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