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Movie Review Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan returns to the biggest of the big screens with Dunkirk.

By Sean PatrickPublished 7 years ago 6 min read
Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk

With The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, director Christopher Nolan has ascended to that rarefied air of directors who can sell a movie with his name alone. Nolan now stands shoulder to shoulder with fellow relative newcomers J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon and the original superstar director, Steven Speilberg.

The proof comes with the release of Dunkirk, Nolan's latest film and one with a minimum of star-power, rough, non-commercial subject matter, and a World War II setting that has rarely been the home of four quadrant hits without the back up of major stars like Tom Hanks or John Wayne. If Dunkirk is to succeed it will be the director of Batman who makes it happen.

Dunkirk portrays one of the most tragic moments in British military history. Struggling and failing to aid France in holding off the advancing forces of Hitler's Germany, a large portion of the British military is trapped in plain sight on the beach of Dunkirk, a mere 47 miles from the cliffs of Dover on the British Isle, close enough that a commander laments that the endangered troops can almost see their home from the beach. (No Sarah Palin, they couldn't actually see it from there!)

With the British Navy at risk of being decimated and the Royal Air Force needed for the battles to come, the British chose to do something remarkable, essentially deputize local boat owners and send those pleasure boats to Dunkirk to retrieve the soldiers, as many as they could carry. Winston Churchill had hoped to bring back only 30,000 troops but nearly 300,000 of the 400,000 British soldiers on Dunkirk beach came home thanks to the heroic work of private boat owners like Mr. Dawson, played by Academy Award winner Mark Rylance.

The story of Dunkirk is told in the Nolan-esque style of Memento and Interstellar, a non-linear style that will make it impenetrable to some audiences, critics included. Subtle changes of light and darkness throw the perceptions of audiences into the chaos being felt by the characters. It's an obvious but very effective device, especially as we are thrust into the maelstrom before we can form any emotional connections to any specific character.

There are a couple of audience surrogates in the film with newcomers Fionn Whitehead and pop star Harry Styles as nameless soldiers struggling to survive and escape the beach, Tom Hardy, arguably the only big name cast member, mostly covered up as a heroic British pilot and Kenneth Branagh as a brave yet despairing General. That said, no one is given much time to make an emotional impact beyond their mere human existence.

And this is where Dunkirk and I part ways. As much as the spectacle of Dunkirk is overwhelming to the point of physical exhaustion, the lack of audience identification kept me at a distance. Certainly, I don't want to dictate how any kind of movie is made, including war movies, and I don't want to dictate to an artist how to communicate with an audience, but for me, I prefer to connect emotionally to characters, to empathize with the specificity of their circumstance and Dunkirk denies that connection and leaves only the feeling of having been physically acted upon.

There is much to be said about having a film become such a visceral experience that it leaves you physically exhausted, I've loved that feeling in the past, but I needed more than that. The human moments of Dunkirk, the specific memories on display feel remote despite the hard work of actors such as Cillian Murphy and Mark Rylance whose situation is the most engaging, they don't have the time, nor does Nolan's style of telling the story, have room for creating fully fleshed out characters.

Nolan's style, that some have dubbed "Nolan-Time" is to break apart from linear timelines with a specific aim to lurch audiences into paying full attention to the worry they might miss something important. It's an effective device but also one that has an intended effect of forcing audiences to search for faces we recognize in order to bring order to the chaos of Nolan's timeline.

Thus, even though the characters played by Cillian Murphy, Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles don't resonate, their faces become important to us as storytelling devices. We search the screen for them when we aren't in Tom Hardy's plane or aboard Mark Rylance's boat. We go looking for these young soot covered men and find them in great peril alongside so many other young fresh soot covered faces; their youthful British faces running together as they become one and that is closest we come to an emotional connection to the characters, being forced to search for a recognizable, singular face and in doing so seeing the fear in the eyes of the faceless.

The casting of Harry Styles and Fionn Whitehead were specific and calculated decisions. While some debate the mercenary nature of choosing a pop star to be part of a prestige war movie they are missing the point that this very recognizable face with strong cheekbones and bright eyes is a rather perfect choice to represent a seemingly faceless mass. Searching for his face makes you see the other faces and forces their impressions upon you.

As for Whitehead, his lack of star power is his most compelling aspect. Don't misunderstand me, he's a fine young actor, but the fact that he is essentially the lead of the film, carrying more screen time than Hardy, Rylance or Branagh, is a specific choice. He's faceless in our memory, we can project upon Whitehead our own concerns and fears. Whitehead's specific lack of a recognizable face, striking as his face is, is why he's cast as one of the 400,000 soldiers on Dunkirk Beach; he is us.

While Harry Styles' face makes you look for him, Whitehead is the heart of the teeming mass of soldiers in peril because his lack of a recognizable face allows us to become him and feel as him. It's a smart piece of direction but it's also a tacit acknowledgment by Nolan that he doesn't have the time to flesh out these characters and this gimmick is all you're going to get out of Dunkirk.

Gimmick is a tad glib on my part but not untrue. I was never really able to immerse my full self in Dunkirk because I was recognizing the mechanics of the storytelling. I was watching Christopher Nolan make Dunkirk rather than experience Dunkirk as a finished movie. I was paying as much attention to Christopher Nolan's directorial choices as I was these brave but shallow characters.

You can, and some undoubtedly will, argue that my being a film critic with more than a decade of film experience am more apt to look for such devices and thus it's my own fault I wasn't able to invest in the spectacle of Dunkirk. You have a point. But I am not wrong in that the devices of Christopher Nolan's storytelling are far more on display in Dunkirk than in any of his previous films and that is a flaw, one that I fear may be coming to define him as a director.

It began with something my friend and podcast co-host Bob Zerull mentioned when we debated The Dark Knight Rises, a film I like, and continued when Bob hated Interstellar while I remained somewhat in fealty to Nolan's style choices. Bob pointed out the similarities and the growing gimmickry of Christopher Nolan's style. That style that other's have noted as 'Nolan-Time.' Not all of Nolan's films toy with time to manipulate the audience but it certainly is a device in his directorial arsenal that seems to be overtaking his art.

The choice to rely on the audience to bring emotional connection to Dunkirk on a human level rather than via the specific experience of a character or characters, is one that left me cold. It left me only to examine the inner-workings of Nolan's filmmaking and while he is a master filmmaker I fear that humanity and specificity are slowly leaking out of his work in favor of a more artificial stylistic approach that while remarkably skillful is nevertheless an emotionally empty experience. In other words, merely spectacle.


About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast I am a voting member of the Critics Choice Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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