Christopher Nolan, thanks to the massive success of movies like The Dark Knight and Inception, has become one of the few Hollywood directors with enough cache to do whatever they want. There is a small army of Nolan fanatics out there who will attack any film critic who gives their favorite director a bad review, but there is no doubt that the appeal of his movies extends beyond these obsessives. Regular people pay good money to see the new Christopher Nolan movies. He’s become a brand; his movies, an event. The brand is recognizable to anyone who’s seen his work: complicated narratives (usually science fiction) in which a man (always a man) tries to solve a puzzle in order to find deliverance. With his latest movie, Dunkirk, Nolan seems to be stepping into a decisively different direction from his previous work. It’s not a huge departure, but Dunkirk is different enough from the template he set for himself to suggest this might be the beginning of a new phase in Nolan’s career. A phase that promises some very exciting filmmaking, finding a way to work around some of the director’s weaknesses, while others persist. For there is no director more seemingly meticulous, and yet so effectively sloppy as Christopher Nolan.
Unlike most of Nolan’s previous work, Dunkirk is a historical drama. It’s World War II and the Germans are expanding. The French and British troops have been cornered in the northern coast of France. With nowhere to go, the troops wait in the shores of Dunkirk to be taken across the channel, and back to the (relative) safety of England. “[The Germans] can pick us up like fish in a barrel” says one British officer, and he’s right to be pessimistic. Anyone who looks at the circumstances would agree these guys were fucked. That’s why it’s so impressive that the British Military managed to get more than 300 thousand soldiers off the continent. Some people called it the “Miracle of Dunkirk,” which doesn’t mean it wasn’t a harrowing experience for those involved. That’s when Christopher Nolan comes in.
The very first shot of Dunkirk is jaw-dropping. Describing it won’t make it sound like a particularly shocking shot -it features a group of soldiers walking through an empty street, papers flying in the wind- but it’s the size and clarity of the image that takes your breath away. I saw this movie in 70mm IMAX film, which a lot of people insist is the “only right way” to see this movie. Usually, I would call these people pedantic, and while I don’t agree this is the “only way”, I do think it’s well worth spending the money to see the movie in IMAX if you have the chance. The sheer size and resolution of the image is overwhelming, but Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema put it to especially good use in this movie. The quiet scene that opens the movie quickly transforms into an escape. The soldiers are being attacked by the enemy, they must escape to the beach. And that’s just the beginning of their problems.
One of our soldiers manages to get to the beach, where he finds a wounded body. Now he and another guy try to get the body on the ship that’s about to depart to England, and so they’re running through the beach and then over a broken pier and what’s that oh no the German planes are coming and are starting to bomb the beach hoping to decimate the troops as they wait for their escape. It’s overwhelming, exhausting, incredibly tense. It’s also incredibly effective filmmaking. To say that I was impressed would be an understatement. There is very little dialogue in this opening sequence. It’s all images, movement, and very loud sound. It’s straight-forward and lean in a way that practically no Christopher Nolan movie has ever been. It’s not lost in a bunch of big ideas and science fiction nonsense. It’s simple. It’s raw. It’s survival. It’s the best part of the movie.
Dunkirk doesn’t stray completely from Nolan’s predilection for non-linear storytelling. He doesn’t do anything too crazy this time around. He settles for presenting the story in three different timelines. The first timeline follows the soldiers waiting on the beach, which starts out one week before the evacuation. The second, follows the British civilians who answered the call of the British government for extra vessels and took their boats to Dunkirk in order to help bring the boys home. This timeline starts out one day before the evacuation and focuses mainly on one boat piloted by Academy Award-winner Mark Rylance. The third timeline focuses on the air force pilots in charge of protecting the beach from German bombers. This one starts out one hour before the evacuation.
So, after the initial sequence I described, the movie starts to cut back and forth between the three timelines. Each of them comes with their own strengths and weaknesses, which is fine. The real problem comes from the fact that, when the timelines come together for the grand finale, the payoff isn’t quite as spectacular as the movie wants it to be. The filmmaking remains visceral and propulsive, but everything that was focused about the opening sequence becomes confusing. There are aspects that don’t pay off and plot-points that aren’t clear to the degree that I wonder if Nolan just didn’t realize there were things in his movie that don’t quite make sense. It could be a conscious formal decision to represent the chaos of warfare, which would make the finale even more disappointing, because how many times has that been done already?
That is the recurring issue with Christopher Nolan. He crafts these complicated puzzle structures, and then leaves glaring holes all over them. His public persona presents him as a precise obsessive in the style of Stanley Kubrick, but he’s always struck me as much more of a James Cameron. His strengths don’t lie in complicated ideas and cold headiness, but in visceral thrill-rides and blockbuster energy. With a few exceptions (mostly The Prestige), a Christopher Nolan movie will always entertain at first, then show its questionable choices and evident weaknesses. Dunkirk avoids most of Nolan’s weaknesses: Clocking at less than two hours, it’s his shortest movie, and the first one in at least a decade to not feel bloated. And by focusing on action instead of dialogue, it highlights Nolan the director, who has always been a better filmmaker than Nolan the writer. But it can’t avoid all.
There are a number of head-scratching choices in the movie. Like, why did Nolan choose when to use and not use IMAX cameras. The aspect ratio (and image quality) change is noticeable, and it doesn’t really serve a narrative or thematic purpose. It happens practically at random, and if 75% of the movie was shot using IMAX cameras, then why not the rest? And why not make an aesthetic choice about it, especially if your brand is “meticulous”. Also, Hans Zimmer’s effectively tense score heavily features a ticking clock sound, which is weird since this isn’t really a ticking clock movie. It’s not like we’re counting down to one specific event, but rather that the soldiers are waiting for rescue. The way the ticking is used feels like time is running out, not like we’re buying time, so what gives?
These are only some of the elements that seem to stand in clear opposition to the movie’s goals. The biggest one of course is the question of why tell the story using three different timelines in the first place. There doesn’t seem to be a particularly good reason other than the fact that Nolan gets to introduce the characters played by Rylance and Tom Hardy (who plays one of the pilots) from the beginning of the film. And honestly, it’s questionable if we needed those two story-lines at all. The movie could have been as effective (if not more) if it focused solely on the troops stranded at the beach. The Hardy story-line bring up some extraordinary aerial photography and visual effects, but it didn’t need the non-linear structure to be part of the movie.
The Mark Rylance storyline, on the other hand, is clearly the weakest link. Rylance is a great actor who brings a lot of pathos to the material he is given, but this is the most dialogue-heavy part of the film, in which a boy that’s too young to help sneaks into Rylance’s boat, and then they find a shell-shocked survivor (played by Nolan favorite Cillian Murphy). Rylance feels like a representation of the unbreakable British spirit, keeping calm and carrying on no matter what. Needless to say this part of the movie plays into the sort of story-telling stereotypes and wartime sentimentality that are absent from the rest. It also features the least impressive filmmaking. It’s surely meant to be the emotional heart of the film, but the movie didn’t need it. It is so tense and visceral it’s already an exposed nerve.
The structural choice also means that the climax arrives unannounced. It’s kind of shocking when the movie starts wrapping up and you realized the “final battle” has already past. Maybe the brain was too focused on trying to keep track, wondering if the timelines had aligned yet or not, but Dunkirk felt like a big crescendo that didn’t really payed off the way it was setting up to do. The score does a lot of the heavy lifting, to let you know the end is coming, by turning sentimental. The movie itself turns sentimental, really, with an inspirational speech that felt weirdly out of place in its patriotism. It is undoubtedly inspirational that these men managed to survive, but the movie started out as such a raw portrayal of the unbearable intensity of war I didn’t expect it to end in such a sentimental place. Or maybe it’s just a weird time for patriotism. There are, of course, already a dozen think-pieces asking what Dunkirk says about Brexit.