Although my grandfather was a Spitfire pilot for the RAF in World War II, it’s safe to say I had about as much interest in Dunkirk going in as I did in Cars 3, which is to say it was on the level of “Eh, might as well see this for free, since I’ll never pay for it.” We know how World War II ends, it’s been done to death in movies, and honestly, after Interstellar, isn’t the idea of a Christopher Nolan big-budget “epic” just kinda synonymous with needless bloat these days?
Answer: no. This isn’t the Nolan you’re used to, Tom Hardy casting aside. This is Nolan trying to up his game, so clearly wanting Dunkirk to be his Saving Private Ryan or Titanic, a defining historical action epic that proves he’s not just the twisty plot-in-overlong-sci-fi-movie guy. And it’s neither of those two movies, but maybe it’s enough to just let it be Dunkirk. It is, however, immersive and cinematic as all hell (most of the time), especially when viewed on a massive Imax screen in 70mm.
“I support the troops” is as commonplace a typical American catchphrase today as “Have a nice day” was in the ’80s, but what does it really mean? How far does your support go? If your government asked, or rather, insisted, would you take your civilian vehicle smackdab into the middle of a war zone to help evacuate and save the lives of those soldiers you profess to love? Because that’s exactly what happened when the English and French armies were driven to the coast by the axis, and there weren’t enough available ships to evacuate (Churchill, we are told, was pointedly conserving resources for the Battle of Britain that he knew would come next). In the best of Dunkirk’s three major converging storylines, Mark Rylance plays one such boat owner who travels without complaint, and with two young boys, to the war-torn coast of France to do his part.
In the other stories, Tom Hardy is one of three Spitfire pilots to come and provide air cover, in a sequence that’s inherently exciting because we can see the very immediate dangers they face, and there’s a ticking-clock element of how much fuel they’ll be able to burn before they have to turn back. The third storyline is the least effective, though arguably the most necessary, as identical-looking young soldiers (one of whom is Harry Styles) on the beach struggle to find ways to escape, often finding themselves even worse off than they began. Unless you are a badass like Tom Hardy, says Dunkirk, war is random hell that you only survive by blind luck, abetted slightly by whatever skills you may have.
Obeying the cinematic maxim of “show, don’t tell” to a greater extent than he ever has before, Nolan relies far more on imagery and editing than any specific plot, in order to create a “you are there” vibe that might be hampered by, let’s say, a love interest that would remind you this is Hollywood. It’s a fair enough tactic, but characters still matter; at a certain point I felt my mind wandering away from the beach troops, not fully understanding where they were at a given point or why they were there. The Rylance storyline remains compelling throughout, especially when the boat picks up a particularly disturbed survivor played by Cillian Murphy.
And that, I think, is where Nolan misses what helps those great previous war movies win Oscars. Everyone loves Spielberg’s Normandy beach sequence, or Cameron’s big boat sinking, but those directors didn’t make their key sequences the entirety of the movie. You care when the Titanic sinks because Rose and Jack and their supporting cast matter by the time it happens; you care about Normandy Beach because Tom Hanks is in the middle of it. That’s why the Rylance story works so well, and even the Hardy one–which begins relatively peacefully–to a lesser extent. The introduction to the troops on the beach, in which stragglers through a deserted town try to survive on water from hoses and old cigarette butts, only to be suddenly shot at from all sides, is masterful…but the boys become reasonably interchangeable after that.
Though it’s under two hours, I could stand it to be trimmed even further–there are maybe ten minutes in the middle where I felt my attention waning–and yet I’d hate to discourage Nolan from trying to take this approach more often. There’s a middle ground somewhere between the purely visceral and the wankingly clever, and if Dunkirk occasionally sways too much towards the former, well, it’s still a valuable course correction. I’d love to have seen Nolan’s Insomnia, for one, done more in this style. Maybe next time.
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