Dunkirk is a beautiful, if frustrating, look at war

Director Christopher Nolan produces a mature and anxious look at the battle of Dunkirk that’s glorious, if too lean for its own good.

Between May 26th and June 4th, 1940, 400,000 men were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. Surrounded by the Germans and attacked by the air, only 45,000 were expected to be saved. Dunkirk is a story that should be better known outside of college history classes, and Christopher Nolan’s masterful Dunkirk is destined to become the de facto look at the story. Outside of its historical significance Dunkirk shows off Nolan’s own techniques as a filmmaker to make for a film that is technically, if not completely narratively, lustrous.

It’s the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk through the eyes of civilian sailors, airmen, and the soldiers who experienced it.

With history being so finite and infinitely regurgitated in cinema, television, and literature, it’s hard for directors to break new ground story-wise. Nolan’s Dunkirk is a lean and gritty film that, while dropping the narrative warmth of something like Saving Private Ryan, replaces that with a panic-inducing sense of dread that never lets up. Dropping the audience right into the action with no context other than some text, Nolan makes the audience feel the panic of the young boys sent to fight. As Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy breathlessly races through empty French streets, German bullets following close behind, Nolan illustrates that there’s no time to give these characters “How do you do’s.”

The lack of proper names or personality traits for the majority of the characters takes a lot of getting used to, one of many facets of Dunkirk you have to roll with. Nolan wants the audience to stand alongside these boys, and sympathize with them because they’ve been put in a horrific situation. When Wonder Woman talks about leaders needing to  fight with their men, this is what she means. The lack of names, and the fact the boys are dressed and look the same, will leave you asking “Who is that again?” Whitehead is the protagonist of a group of stellar young talents and watching their acting, much of it silent, demonstrates their skills. Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Barry Keoghan, and, yes, Harry Styles are all amazing. Each has a story that sees them transition from boys to men in different ways. White and Styles have the strongest arc, mainly because they interact with each other. “All we did is survive,” says one of the boys, and their youth and vitality is one of the reasons their survival is so necessary.

The more established actors are all solid, but it’s often hard for them to rise above cameo status, particularly Kenneth Branagh who seems primed to deliver trailer lines and little else. Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson and Tom Hardy’s Farrier are given engaging narratives, the former a civilian taking his son and boat out to save troops. Rylance’s moments with Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier have weight, especially once a snippet of Mr. Dawson’s past is revealed. Hardy’s character contains the film’s visceral action, taking to the air to down enemy planes. The camera swoops and glides alongside him in the air—those prone to motion sickness will want to wait till home video to avoid nausea—and provides Dunkirk its big action set-piece. It is unfortunate that, maybe in a misguided allusion to his past (joking), Hardy is once again saddled with a mask covering half his face.

Nolan’s directing here shows off a flair for experimentation alongside the usual Nolan-isms. He plays with time throughout—the beach scenes take place over a week, Rylance’s boat over a day, and Hardy in the air over an hour—and though the movie attempts to play with bridging those timelines, they don’t cross in a way that’s effective. At times it feels like Nolan is more interested in showing off style, and the lack of characters you can latch onto will only leave you feeling colder. Dunkirk is a film that’s so admirable and respectable, but it’s hard to cling to it beyond that. And for all the technical categories Dunkirk will easily secure come awards time, Nolan still hasn’t mastered proper sound mix. Hardy’s dialogue remains just as unintelligible as it was in Dark Knight Rises and other characters come off as muffled or garbled. The lack of dialogue allows audiences to focus more on Hans Zimmer’s breathtaking score. Accompanied by a ticking clock literally counting down the hours, the orchestra is sweeping and haunting.

Though watching Dunkirk for the dialogue is unnecessary in itself. Dunkirk is a film of emotions, and much like the confusion of interacting with characters you barely know, the film relies on situations that induce stress. People in the audience become grunts themselves, and some of the tension-filled sequences are nothing short of panic-inducing. Drowning is a common theme in Nolan’s work and he exhibits the fear and growing dread of being consumed by water to its full terror. Soldiers either become trapped in or jump off boats, a fighter pilot attempts to escape his plane before being trapped underwater—all these scenes are filmed magnificently if only to enhance the inviting death that awaits. The wide expanse of the movie theater holds no support from the utter claustrophobia Nolan’s camera captures as the men attempt to flee their various watery graves.

Claiming Dunkirk as a masterpiece is understandable. Like a Picasso, Christopher Nolan crafts a feature that’s magnificent to witness and emotionally effective. However there’s a remoteness and sterility to it that keeps audiences at a distance. The weak sound mix and lack of characterization keep audiences on their toes, but separate the emotional connection needed for this to truly resound. Either way Dunkirk is a film that should be experienced, irrespective of its flaws.