Movie Review: “Dunkirk” (PG-13)
I feel like I’m in the overwhelming minority when I say that “Dunkirk” isn’t a masterpiece. It isn’t a masterpiece by war movie standards, and it isn’t a masterpiece by Christopher Nolan movie standards. Having said that, “Dunkirk” is a good movie with a fairly unique war film structure, and it’s certainly worth seeing on the largest screen possible. In fact, if you have an Imax screen in your area, that’s the best way to experience it.
This triptych story of survival finds thousands of soldiers battling to stay alive during an epic World War II stand at Dunkirk. Over the course of a limited amount of time, these individuals would fight the good fight on land, sea, and air, all while hoping for a miracle of monumental proportions.
There is no single protagonist in “Dunkirk.” This is essentially an ensemble piece. Among the standouts are Mark Rylance’s fiercely compassionate Mr. Dawson, Tom Hardy’s stoic ace Spitfire pilot Farrior, and Kenneth Branagh’s miracle-seeking Commander Bolton. Cillian Murphy and newcomer Fionn Whitehead are also solid as petrified soldiers who look to survive on the battlefield any way they can.
“Dunkirk” is a bit of a departure for Nolan in that he’s tackling an actual historical event. Whether or not the history as depicted in this film is 100 percent accurate is debatable, but one thing is undeniable: The attention to detail in this picture is extraordinary. By land, sea, or air, “Dunkirk” is a thing of absolute beauty. The fashion in which Nolan chooses to tell large stretches of this story through moving pictures and no dialogue is also quite bold. And then there’s the breathtaking aerial dogfights, the mad dash to get wounded men to safety, and a terrifying sequence involving a capsizing boat. Yes, this movie is thick with tension.
Nolan and crew certainly bring the visual bravado in a big way. In fact, from a technical standpoint, the only gripe one might bring against “Dunkirk” are the moments in which ambient noise makes it difficult to decipher what some characters are saying, particularly during the Spitfire sequences. There were a few distracting moments when an irritating lack of audible character audio in the plane cockpit coupled with the covering of the lower part of Hardy’s face immediately gave me “Bane” flashbacks. And not in a good way. A shame too, because overall, Hardy is terrific in this picture.
At a brisk 1 hour and 47 minutes (making this Nolan’s shortest film since his 1998 debut, “Following”), “Dunkirk” is a fully immersive cinematic experience. It throws you right in the heart of the action. It’s intense (amplified by Hans Zimmer’s effective score), brutal, relentless, and extremely well crafted. But for all its historical importance, “Dunkirk” as a movie is never quite as inspiring or as profound as it aspires to be, particularly when stacked up against last year’s “Hacksaw Ridge,” a war picture that takes the phrase “I can’t believe that really happened!” and turns it completely upside down. Even this summer’s sci-fi epic “War For the Planet of the Apes” cuts deeper on an emotional level.
Speaking of which, while “Dunkirk” is certainly exhilarating, it isn’t particularly moving. There’s no real emotional core, because we don’t really get to know who any of these men truly are. Everything is pretty surface level in the character department. True, a couple of these actors are able to bring more to their roles than was probably on the written page, but not to the degree that one would hope. I recognize that in many ways the lack of emotional complexity in this film is by design. This isn’t really a movie about character and backstories. It’s about this “against all odds” moment in history. It’s also a story about how the horrors of war can stir up chaos, fear, and heroism to varying degrees.
Whatever misgivings I might have with “Dunkirk,” there is no doubt that this is another ambitious effort from one of our most celebrated contemporary storytellers. This is the kind of movie that demands to be seen in a theater for its sheer craftsmanship alone. Besides, if you wait to watch this one on Netflix, a very talented and very outspoken Christopher Nolan isn’t likely to forgive you anytime soon, and nobody wants that on their conscience.