Dunkirk (2017)    Warner Bros./Action-Drama    RT: 107 minutes    Rated PG-13 (intense war experience, some language)    Director: Christopher Nolan    Screenplay: Christopher Nolan    Music: Hans Zimmer    Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema    Release date: July 21, 2017 (US)    Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy. 



 I wanted to like Dunkirk more than I did. Really I did. After all, the story it tells is absolutely compelling. It’s about the mission to evacuate 400,000 British soldiers trapped on the beach at Dunkirk, France by Nazi troops in the early days (April-May 1940) of WWII. It’s also the subject of this spring’s Their Finest, a comedy-drama about the making of a war propaganda film by the Ministry of Information. It’s directed by Christopher Nolan, primarily known for his Dark Knight trilogy as well as mind-benders like Memento, Inception and Interstellar. With a pedigree like that, I expected great things from Dunkirk. What I got was a good but flawed film.

 Dunkirk-Movie-PosterDunkirk is Nolan’s most conventional film since his 2002 remake of the Norwegian thriller Insomnia. Of course, “conventional” is a relative term here. Instead of a straightforward telling of a great war story, he breaks the narrative into three sections- land, sea and air. Now here’s the rub, each one covers a different period of time. The land part takes place over the course of a week, the sea part covers one day and the air one hour. The three parts are interwoven into a whole that doesn’t match the sum of its parts. At the same time, Dunkirk is simply too much. While Nolan clearly knows how to stage effective attack scenes, it becomes overwhelming. Adding to this is his overuse of Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score. He uses it in scenes where silence or natural war sounds would have sufficed or had greater effect.

 One of the things that bugged me most about Dunkirk is the anonymity of several characters. There’s virtually no character development. Some of them don’t even have names. Cillian Murphy’s (Batman Begins) PTSD-afflicted soldier is known only as “Shivering Soldier”, the state he’s in after a civilian rescuer pulls him from the sea. The sea part of Dunkirk follows a private boat owner (Rylance, Bridge of Spies) who heads out to sea with his son (Carney) and a teenage deck hand (Keoghan, ’71) to aid other civilians in rescuing the trapped soldiers. Shallow waters prevent large warships from evacuating the troops so the Navy has commandeered smaller, privately owned vessels for this purpose. They run into trouble shortly after saving Murphy’s character who begs them to turn around rather than sail right into certain death. He attempts to wrest control of the ship which leads to inevitable tragedy.

 On land, a trio of young infantrymen (including one played by One Direction’s Harry Styles) tries to get out alive but find themselves stymied at every turn. They try sneaking onto a boat by posing as stretcher bearers but are made to leave before it sets sail. This misfortune turns into a stroke of good luck for the boys after the Germans sink it as it departs. This sort of thing happens a few times to these guys. In the air, an RAF pilot (Hardy, The Dark Knight Rises) deals with the German fighter planes doing the sinkings. He’s running low on fuel, his gauges don’t work and he’s alone (after two other planes are shot down) but he never backs down. He never even considers it.

 Well-intentioned though Dunkirk may be, I couldn’t help but feel numb as I left the theater. For me, the pinnacle of WWII films is Saving Private Ryan. From the bloody opening sequence at Normandy Beach to the emotionally-wrenching story of sacrifice, it hits me in a way very few films do. When I saw it a special advance screening in ’98, there was a pause between the start of the end credits and the audience bursting into applause. It’s the pause that says the most. I didn’t experience any emotions like that during Dunkirk which is a shame because it salutes some of the unsung heroes of a terrible conflict. Any story, especially a true one, about civilians coming together in the name of patriotism during a time a war should be more stirring than this.

 I also felt like the screenplay was half-baked. I get that Nolan wants his movie to be driven by its visual elements rather than script or expository dialogue but now he’s traversing into Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) territory. However, the visuals are quite impressive, especially the aerial scenes. I’m told that Dunkirk needs to be seen in 70mm to be fully appreciated and while I don’t doubt that, I’d like more story and less visual razzle-dazzle (if I had to choose). The movie does benefit from a solid cast that includes Kenneth Branagh (Henry V) as the Navy officer overseeing the evacuation at Dunkirk. The actors do a fine job even if their characters aren’t fully fleshed-out. For instance, we know nothing about Hardy’s character. We don’t even get to see his face but for a few seconds. What is it about Nolan wanting this actor to conceal his face? He did the same thing as Bane in the last Dark Knight movie.

 Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike Dunkirk. I’m just a little disappointed by it. It’s good when it should be great. At least it doesn’t wear out its welcome; it runs only 107 minutes. It has many good elements but the overall effect is less than one would hope. It leaves something to be desired at the end. Given the talent on both sides of the camera, Dunkirk should have turned out better. Like I said, it’s good not great. 

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