After the over-hyped but still good The Dark Knight (2008), everyone waited to see what Christopher Nolan did next…and then came Inception (2010). An even better film which caused his fanbase (and new fans after the hyping of that previous film) to go nuts. Everyone waited with baited breath for his next film, as now Christopher Nolan was an auteur, seemingly on the same level as Stephen Spielberg. Then came The Dark Knight Rises (2012), which was okay, but it didn’t stop anyone from holding Nolan to high praise. Now, his latest film, Dunkirk, is on DVD…and the critics are going nuts.
A near perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes? A fantastic score on IMDb? Then this Dunkirk was a not-miss movie event, right? Well, it seems so…until you dig a little deeper. Over on IMDb, there are lots of user reviews that don’t actually praise the film – in fact, there are a lot of users that hate this film, and say the positive reviews are all paid for. Can this be true? Or is Dunkirk the masterpiece the critics claim it is?
The acting is mixed in Dunkirk. While the film boasts several big names – Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, etc. – they don’t really have to do much in their roles. Kenneth Branagh, for example, basically stands on a pier for the entire film. Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy have a bit more to do, but their emotional detachment makes it hard for the viewer to really get involved in their storylines.
It’s the lesser-knowns that emote the most in Dunkirk, and even they do so with barely an emotional attachment at all. Fionn Whitehead, probably the main star of this film, spends his entire time trying desperately to get away from the beach. Using any trick he can think of, he does his best to push his way past the other soldiers – who all seem to be fresh from the fighting, while he himself just fled – and attempt to run away.
And that’s the biggest problem with Dunkirk. While the film is about a massive evacuation of troops, there is a complete lack of bravery on the part of any of the soldiers depicted on the ground. Instead, they seem to be nothing more than rats fleeing a sinking ship, and are outclassed by the supposedly “cowardly” French in a brief moment near the beginning of the film. While this famous evacuation has been touted as one of the bravest acts in the history of war, the film makes it into the complete opposite. With the impression that only the French are holding the barricades that keep the encroaching Nazi army at bay, the viewer is witness to cowardly actions from the British army time and again. In fact, other than Tom Hardy’s pilot overwhelming bravery, the only other examples of courage in the film come from the civilians who plunge themselves into the war, only thinking of what they can do to help.
And then there’s the non-linear timeline. While Christopher Nolan has made masterful use of this before in films like Inception (2010), it seems like a cheap trick in Dunkirk. It’s used throughout the film solely so the viewer doesn’t know when the civilian ships will arrive, and it causes a bit of confusion throughout the film that makes it seem like nothing more than a cheap ploy to keep the viewer watching. For example, there’s a sequence where Cillian Murphy is shown on the boat after being rescued from his downed plane, and Tom Hardy then flies over an enemy plane. Is this Cillian Murphy’s plane, and the people on the boat have mistakenly picked up one of the enemy? Then, in the next sequence, as a ship sinks near the shore, and Fionn Whitehead is trying desperately to swim to a rowboat, someone who looks a lot like Cillian Murphy is shown as the leader of that rowboat. How did he get there? It just doesn’t make any sense.
The cinematography, on the other hand, is top-notch. Dunkirk really brings a gritty realism to the screen, and the viewer feels like they are actually there during this moment in history. It’s impactful, and brings a sense of urgency to the characters that is strongly needed.
Unfortunately, due to Christopher Nolan’s unwillingness to use CGI, the actual scope of the evacuation (according a newspaper headline later in the film, over 350,000 troops were evacuated on this beach) is never fully realized. Even an establishing shot showing the array of men, or at least a shot of more men streaming onto the beach, would have given the viewer a better sense of the massive scale of this event. Instead, only a few hundred are shown crowding the beach, and everything else – from the planes to the boats – is scaled down the same way. While Christopher Nolan was obviously trying to create a more personal version of the story in Dunkirk, that lack of scale really hurts the film.
All in all, Dunkirk is nowhere near as impressive as its rating on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb make it out to be. Sure, it has a gritty realism that really packs a wallop, but its complete lack of bravery from its British army on the ground really does a disservice to the men who were valiantly trying to hold back an overwhelming force even as they evacuated. There are several points in the film that are patently ridiculous, and even the soundtrack seems to get stuck on one piercing note a few times in the film.
Christopher Nolan was obviously trying to take a war movie and scale it down to just a few moments in time, yet keep the characters relatively nameless so they could represent more of an average Joe during the evacuation. Unfortunately, it seems to have backfired a bit for him, as the anonymity of these characters really doesn’t help the viewer connect with them, and thus their struggles aren’t quite as impactful as the could have been. Sure, it’s beautifully shot, and depicts a gritty realism that not many war films have achieved, but without that connection, it’s impact on the viewer is greatly reduced.
It’s too bad, really. Christopher Nolan can make great movies (Inception (2010)). But, sadly, Dunkirk isn’t one of them.