Christopher Nolan is undoubtedly one of the most masterful directors working today, but the case could also be made he’s one of the greatest directors of all time. From small budgeted independent films like Memento, to original triumphs like Inception, all the way to the Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan has proven himself to be a true auteur. However, many would agree Nolan may have lost a step with the release of the bloated and cheesy Interstellar in 2014, a major disappointment in the eyes of many. Three years later, Nolan has created another epic film being hailed as a masterpiece based on the true story of the Battle of Dunkirk during the half of World War II America always ignores, Dunkirk.
In Dunkirk, the Nazi Germany army has surrounded the British and French armies, forcing them to retreat to the beaches of Dunkirk. It is there where the soldiers await and pray for the arrival of help whilst being under constant attack by the Nazis. We follow a couple of foot soldiers attempting to escape Dunkirk within a span of a week, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles), a father (Mark Rylance) and son (Tom Glynn-Carney) sailing to Dunkirk to rescue the stranded soldiers in a span of a day, and Royal Air Force Pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) fighting off Nazi bomber planes in the span of an hour.
As I stated earlier, Nolan has full control of the films he makes at this point in his career. Dunkirk is another example of Nolan’s stranglehold on his projects, as the film is beautifully shot while retaining an apocalyptic, doomed atmosphere much like the battle itself. On top of that, the battle sequences put you in the middle of the action, making you jump at every sound of a gun shot to the point that you too want to spring from your seat in the theater and run for cover. From a technical standpoint, Dunkirk might be Christopher Nolan’s most masterful work yet.
However, what prevents Dunkirk from rising to being a great film and one of the most powerful war films ever is the utter lack of characterization in the film. To put it bluntly, Dunkirk doesn’t have characters, it has people. Even though I listed the characters’ names in the synopsis, you cannot recall their names without looking at a cast of “characters” list, that’s how expendable and unmemorable they are. Sure, the whole feeling of dread and wanting to escape is present, but other than wanting to survive/ make it home, we don’t empathize with these people. As an audience member, I wanted to know what specifically these people would miss out on should they perish. Are they trying to escape because they have families back home? Are they sailing to danger because they have an overwhelming feeling of nationalism and want to serve their country? Heck, we don’t even get the cliche’ of a solider pulling out a picture of his girlfriend and saying he can’t wait to see her again.
As I stated earlier, Nolan more than likely has final cut and other overreaching decision making powers whenever he wants to make a project. It’s important to point this out, as Nolan not only directed this film, he also wrote it. This is nothing new as it pertains to Nolan, as he has a writing credit for every single film he’s made with the exception of being uncredited as a writer for 2002’s Insomnia. One of the major criticisms of Interstellar was the writing in the film, and Dunkirk marks Nolan’s second straight misfire in the writing department. A writer’s job is to make the audience empathize and feel for the protagonists, to make them want to get up and cheer once they have accomplished their goal. To make the people that appear on screen human. That feeling never arises in Dunkirk. Sure, there are moments when the performers on screen are in peril or dire circumstances, but the only investment you have in these situations is the uncertainty of what is going to happen. You couldn’t care less whether or not these “characters” survive, and that fault should be placed squarely on the shoulders of Nolan.
With such underwritten characters present and lack of dialogue in the film, it’s hard to judge the performances in Dunkirk. Every teenybopper’s dream boat of the moment and One Direction member Harry Styles makes his much anticipated acting debut in the film, but one can hardly judge his acting capabilities since he gets lost in the shuffle of all of the indispensable soldiers in the film. At this point, it seems like Christopher Nolan is determined to turn Tom Hardy into Batman supervillain Bane, as he is muffled by a plane mask throughout the film, a total waste of Mr. Hardy’s many talents. Veteran actors Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance (who might as well be wearing a tee shirt with the inscription I AM THE SPIRIT OF THE FILM) come across as the best performers, but with such minimal dialogue, Dunkirk might have been the easiest acting job they’ve had in their lengthy careers.
With all of the power Nolan has over his projects now, it’s as if no one bothers to give him notes, or as if he believes he is above them. Someone should’ve met with Nolan and said while his behind the camera craftsmanship is tremendous, the people in his movie are lifeless, inconsequential pawns lacking humanity. Had this occurred, there’s the possibility Nolan would’ve gone back to the drawing board and fleshed these people out further other than bunching them all into the theme of survival. However, maybe Nolan rules with an iron fist and no longer listens to such constructive criticism, opting to instead make his films his way. One can hardly blame him due to his impeccable resume, but one can only live off of their reputation for so long.
Do not make the mistake of thinking Dunkirk is a bad movie. From a technical standpoint, Dunkirk is nothing short of masterful. From a writing and emotional investment perspective, Dunkirk is one of the most underwritten films in a long time. While I’m sure everyone will ridicule me and say “You just don’t get it.”, and maybe I truly don’t, I will not allow a great filmmaker such as Nolan off the hook for woefully underwriting the people in this film. Someone needs to stand up to him and tell him his writing abilities have woefully diminished over his last two films, but maybe I’ll be the only one to do so. Dunkirk is nothing to marvel at and laud, if anything, don’t believe the hype.
Rating: 2/4 Stars. Rent it.