The stage was set.
The reviews had dropped.
The entertainment world went crazy.
People hailed it as “the greatest war movie of all time.”
The public’s already high expectations were further bolstered.
There was absolutely no way Dunkirk could have failed, right?
I know, I am going to get crucified for having criticised a Christopher Nolan movie – for that is the nature of the fans.
Now, before I let loose all the horrible things I have to say about this movie, let me first clarify – I am a huge fan of Christopher Nolan’s filmmaking craft. The man has made some of the greatest movies of this century.
I wanted this to be the next Saving Private Ryan. The next Apocalypse Now. The gold standard by which all war movies would have to be measured by.
And did it deliver?
But, I will say, that Dunkirk is a modern filmmaking marvel. The technical aspects of the movie blew my mind. The aerial dogfights were intense, and jaw-dropping. The acute attention to detail, a standard of Nolan’s movies, was ever present. The editing was tight, and concise. The use of practical effects and props, over computer generated ones, was well done. Hans Zimmer’s score felt intense, and claustrophobic. And IMAX was the cherry on the cake. Christopher Nolan perfected shooting in IMAX, in his previous movies, and shot over 75% of Dunkirk in the format. And on an IMAX screen, it is a treat for the senses. Every shot fired felt real. Every dive bomb felt deafening. It easily has got to be one of, if not the, most enjoyable movie going experiences I have ever had. But is it Christopher Nolan’s best film, as many are claiming. My answer: certainly no.
Now, on to the negatives.
The first warning bell went off in my head, when I read that Dunkirk would be one of Nolan’s shortest movies – clocking in at less than 2 hours. 1 hour 47 minutes, to be precise. Now, war epics usually cross the 2 hour mark. And many of Nolan’s movies cross the 2 hour mark as well. Some even near the 3 hour mark (looking at you, Interstellar.). But, my fears were assuaged, because, hey! It is a Christopher Nolan movie! There is no way it could turn out to be bad!
Or so I thought.
The second warning bell went off, upon going through the cast. Now, when you have relegated talented actors like Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, and Cillian Murphy, to the background, and have made newcomers, like Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles, (I had to Google who they were while writing this) the face of your war epic, it surely was going to turn even your biggest fans into skeptics. To some readers, it may seem like a nitpick, but I’ll get back to that, in some time.
The final warning bell went off upon reading the reviews, after the embargo was lifted. Many reviews stated the all but nonexistent screenplay. Some even went so far as to say they found the movie boring. But hey, to each his own.
To sum it up, short war movie, inexperienced main cast, essentially no script. But glowing reviews!
As we fans say, In Nolan We Trust.
Everyone shuffled into the theatre.
The lights went out.
The excitement in the air was palpable.
Two hours later, it ended. And…I was slightly disappointed.
No Emotional Core and Weak Screenplay
I knew I had witnessed a technological masterpiece, but everything else just felt…hollow. Now, that has never happened in previous Nolan movies. (Interstellar had an emotional father-daughter relationship at its core)
The main reason for this hollowness was the aforementioned nonexistence of a solid script. It perplexes me, how this never caused any hindrance to every reviewer’s experience. Then again, upon thinking, it was because of the mindblowingly amazing action set-pieces.
Coming back to the script, Dunkirk tells three intertwined storylines – of the escape on land, the assistance provided by British citizens, and the aerial support provided to the soldiers, and for obvious reasons, the third storyline was the best. Anyone would have to be incredibly thick, and annoyingly daft, to call those dogfight sequences boring.
The second one, where citizens sailed to Dunkirk on their ships, was perhaps the most heartfelt one, because of the presence of some of the bigger names in the cast, namely Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy (a stranded soldier, but since he was rescued, he’s been included), and also, possibly the most tragic death in the entire movie. Though we, the audience, knew bugger all about the characters on screen, we knew what their intentions were. What they were striving towards. This made us connect to them, even though it wasn’t a particularly strong attachment to the characters. But, I have to admit, when they began rescuing the stranded soldiers, I had a huge smile on my face. It was one of those proud cinematic moments that could melt a heart of ice. It was a great, heart-warming moment, in an otherwise directionless movie.
Speaking of directionless, there was so much wrong with the first storyline – that of the stranded soldiers. What were their names? What were they like? What do they have to live for? What do they feel? How do they feel about retreating? These are questions that kept popping up in my mind, as I watched the soldiers huddling up on the beach. Kenneth Branagh was the only one who stood out, and for good reason.
And this, right here, is Dunkirk’s Achilles’ Heel.
Questionable Casting Choices
Going back a few paragraphs, I have written about the casting choices for the faces of the movie. Now, if you would want the audience to connect to the characters, to make us root for them, to make us feel elated when they escape, you probably should have cast a slightly more recognizable face, rather than a singer from an annoyingly dumb band.
Even if you were going to cast unknown faces, not having a single line of dialogue be uttered by the characters that we are to care for, probably isn’t a great idea.
Lack of Properly Defined Antagonists
Also, where were the Germans? Had we been given a solid flesh and blood antagonist/s, we most certainly would have rooted harder for our heroes. But, we were just given gunshots and explosions, which, while thunderously awesome, never provided any stakes whatsoever.
Every flaw in this movie could have been easily avoided, in one simple method. By making it a longer movie, thus, giving us the required context. By giving us the stakes. By giving us properly written, well fleshed-out characters. By casting recognizable talents. (Nitpick, again)
Having said all that, I highly recommend watching this movie, on the biggest screen possible. It is well worth your time and money.
It may seem like I unnecessarily hate this movie, but honestly, I don’t. It pains me to write this, but, this is what I felt.
As a fan of Christopher Nolan. As a fan of cinema.