Or Why Don’t I Like This Movie as Much as Everybody Else?
“Dunkirk” is a war movie, but it’s unlike most war movies. The genre is familiar, but the execution is not.
It’s an economic movie, efficient in both story and storytelling; an extended sequence expanded to feature length. It depicts the evacuation of Dunkirk during WWII, focusing on three characters. Each represents the evacuation from land, sea, and air.
The film wastes little time on exposition. Director Christopher Nolan imparts information precisely and efficiently. The opening shot has the film’s main infantryman (Fionn Whitehead) (IMDB informs me these characters have names; the movie does not) standing amid falling leaflets. He grabs one from mid-air, reads it: Nazi propaganda meant to intimidate: a map, two pieces of text: “You.” “We Surround You.” Helpful arrows surround “You.” In seconds we know where we are and the situation. Perfect.
“Dunkirk” is an extension of Nolan’s obsession with time. In the outset, all seems normal; cross cutting between the three stories appears congruent. As Whitehead finally gets on a ship, night falls. We cut back to Mark Rylance, a civilian taking his own boat into the war zone to help with the evacuation. Our eyes flinch. It’s suddenly daytime. “Nolan screwed up,” I thought. No. I screwed up. It turns out that the land sequences actually begin a whole day before Mr. Dawson’s. As events unfold, the timelines intersect, overlap, and are circled back upon. Has a war film ever done this?
The film feels authentic. The lack of obvious computer-generated imagery helps. Shots appear to be pulled off without special effects. When Tom Hardy’s fighter pilot flies his Spitfire, the camera glides around his plane. The blue sky above, the choppy sea below, it’s beautiful. It seems real. As if another airplane simply got the footage. The camera doesn’t do things it cannot do naturally.
This simplicity makes the film appear to be less spectacular than it is. Ships sink, in long takes, apparently for real. Same with the aerial footage. We’ve seen dogfights before, but with actual airplanes? Without blue screens and actors plastered in front of recorded footage? It feels real. We’re in the cockpit with them.
It is a technically brilliant film, and this essay’s subtitle is a little disingenuous as I actually liked the movie, just nowhere near as much as everyone else seems to have liked it. With a 92% approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes, an even more impressive 94% from Metacritic (their system of aggregating reviews allows for more elbow-room in opinion. They count mediocre reviews as separate entities while Rotten Tomatoes does not, so a high score from the latter is harder to come by), and rave reviews from respected critics like Manhola Dargis and James Berardinelli, “Dunkirk” comes as close to universal praise as movies, especially mainstream movies, get these days. But, again, I just liked it. I wonder why that is.
Normally, I wouldn’t worry too much about my assessment not syncing with those of others. After all, I’m giving my opinion, not somebody else’s. That’s what critics are supposed to do, but lately, it’s been happening more and more often, and leaning on “they’re wrong and I’m right” is a little tiring, not to mention arrogant. A little self-reflection is a good thing, a mental taking stock if you will; are these movies simply not as good as everyone says they are, or am I projecting too much of myself, my pet-peeves, onto them? Am I unfairly rejecting or even willfully ignoring a film’s bright spots because it just didn’t, what, tickle my fancy?
One of the main things I look for in a movie is rewatchability. But, honestly, I really don’t want to watch “Dunkirk” again, not anytime soon, at least. But is that really a fair way to judge movies? I mean, I wanted to see “I Robot,” the Will Smith starring mangling of Isaac Asimov’s classic collection of short stories, a second time. That, in and of itself, points to this being a flawed way of judging a film. And on the other end of the spectrum, I loved “Requiem for a Dream,” but to this day, 17 years later, I have no interest in ever seeing it again. That movie found me, by the end, in the fetal position, cooing positive mantras quietly to myself in order to keep my sanity. Once was more than enough, thank you.
So, really, not wanting to watch the movie again doesn’t have as much to do with why I didn’t full-on love “Dunkirk.” If I’m completely honest, a small part of why I didn’t completely give myself over to it has to do with Christopher Nolan himself; I’m still more than a little sore at him. Hey, I’m human. What can I say? I actually used to love Nolan’s work and looked forward to his films. That changed with the one, two punch of “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Interstellar.” The former was a mess, a minor misstep, I thought at the time, but the latter is so monumentally stupid in just about every conceivable way that I just can’t not think of Nolan (who directed and co-wrote) as an idiot, at least on some level. “Dunkirk” erases that– a little, but not as much as it should.
Still, my lack of love for the film doesn’t hinge purely on a petty grudge. Yes, there is a grudge gremlin hiding out in the back of my mind somewhere, but he’s not at the controls either; there’s just something missing from the movie.
The sound design is stunning—at first. It blasts you to the back of the theater with each Roar of an airplane, each Boom of an explosion, and each Zzzzing of strafing gunfire. My friend turned to me five minutes in, “The sound design is amazing!” He spoke too soon. Yeah, it’s amazing, until people start talking. I simply couldn’t understand a word said by any of the characters. As there isn’t too much talking in the film, it’s not exactly detrimental, but there is an extended sequence late in the film where the dialogue problem really began to actively annoy me and my affection for the film began to wane.
That scene, as it dragged and dragged on, annoyed me on such a monumental level that, I think, it’s one of the main reasons why I’m not raving about the film. A group of soldiers, including our land-protagonist, stow away inside an abandoned ship on the beach and wait for the tide to come in and take them out to sea. As they wait below deck, bullets begin tearing through the hull. Fionn Whitehead realizes that the Nazis outside are using the boat for target practice, unaware of the allied soldiers inside, but if they storm out, they’ll be cut down immediately, so they remain in place and quiet as bullets tear holes through the ship and, possibly, through them.
It’s a great setup for a tense scene, and Nolan keeps the point of view firmly in the boat, so we don’t know where the Nazis are or what they know, which escalates the tension. But that tension soon turns to boredom. The scene just goes on and on, and then, as the tide starts rushing in and into the boat, the soldiers, naturally, begin turning on each other. Using specious reasoning, they decide that the boat can still float if there’s less of them on it. Water is pouring in from all sides, with no way of stopping it. I’m pretty sure sending out one dude isn’t going to help much. But they argue about it at length, and, frankly, I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Recognizable words flew by here and there, “French,” “English,” Survive”, spat out of the massive auditorium speakers, but they didn’t coalesce into an intelligible whole. After a while, I was just watching people argue. Great.
Nolan, whose grasp of film language alternates between brilliant and exacting and, somehow, Michael Bay-esque bumbling idiot tittering with images, leans toward the latter end of that spectrum in the back half of this sequence. The visuals become chaotic, but like the dialogue, remain unintelligible, and…somebody drowns. I don’t know who. Just that somebody drowns.
Sadly, outside of a base curiosity, I’m not sure I cared all that much who drowned in that sequence. I feel guilty saying this about a movie that dramatizes actual, traumatic events. So much so, I have to remind myself that my not caring doesn’t carry over to the real events at Dunkirk, just to the sometimes lackadaisical representation of it in this movie.
The fact is that Whitehead, like most of the characters in the film, is too blank, certainly too much to carry so much of the film. I do get it. He’s shell shocked and terrified. But his expressions do not communicate that. They’re just blank. Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance manage to stand out in their respective roles, Hardy even though he’s covered by a mask and goggles for 95% of the movie. But that’s because they’re Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance. These dudes exude charisma. Fionn Whitehead does not.
He also doesn’t really do all that much in the film. Oh, he stares blankly, alright, and, oh yeah, he saves Harry Styles’s life at one point. This left me with two thoughts: “Why is Harry Styles in this? That’s distracting!” and “Why the f*** do I know who Harry Styles is?”
Despite the lack of characterization, it’s not a cold or ant-septic film, partly because Hans Zimmer’s score sees to that. Consisting mostly of drones and tones for much of the film, it coalesces into a driving and euphoric, actual piece of music by the end. And as the score rises, the film ties itself to that music and ends on an equally bombastic, rousing note. But I’m not sure it earns that emotional ending.
“Dunkirk” isn’t perfect and neither am I. I have weird hang-ups that occasionally flare up and interfere with my readings of movies. But, hopefully, my attempts at honesty kind of balance this out or, at the very least, bring a human element to these reviews. If I ignored me from my reviews, they’d end up rather dry, I think. Nolan takes too much of a human element out of his film. It’s a freight train that runs at full steam, sure, but there’s too few living, breathing people running that train. There’s a lot to admire in “Dunkirk,” but at my moodiest, that’s how I would describe the film: a little dry.