Jeff's Reviews

Thoughts on every movie I've ever seen.

Dunkirk (2017)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Starring Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard, Lee Armstrong

Author

An experimental epic from Nolan. You can tell that a lot of care went into the film’s structure, visuals, and seat-shaking sound. The experience is visceral, and the action is riveting.

Truly stunning visuals. Reviewers around the country are encouraging viewers to see it in IMAX, and for good reason. The panoramic vistas are impressive, and the detail in every shot is exquisite. Action is impressively shot, from claustrophobic but high-quality footage of pilots in cockpits to sweeping dogfighting acrobatics to gunfire and explosions on the beach. Colors are thoughtfully muted the way you’d expect in any war movie, with the only flashes of color coming from orange explosions and vast, unfeeling expanses of blue ocean and sky. Creative camera angles from planes and in sinking ships help to destabilize the viewer even more.

Whether it’s deafening gunfire and explosions, a droning plane engine, rumbling bass, or Nolan’s signature blaring horns, it’s the sound of the film that brings it all together. It helps make every attack and every dogfight feel like you’re actually there. But it’s with the sound of the film that I also had my biggest issue. I’m not sure if it’s the theater I was in or the careless sound mixing, but the blaring soundtrack, especially early in the film, makes it hard to hear the film’s limited dialogue. And the sustained horns and rumbles through just about every scene are excessive. Do we need to be shaken from our seats when a navy commander stands at the end of a dock and wistfully looks across the ocean? I recognize that the first and last few seconds of the film are the only silent moments, and that they are supposed to be stylistic bookends to the film, but is it necessary to sustain the loudness for the entire time in between? Veterans at the film’s premiere claimed “the soundtrack was louder than the actual bombardment”, so I know it’s not just me.

The heightened tension caused by the sustained soundtrack is exhausting, perhaps even detrimental to the story. A film is more dramatic when structured with meaningful and carefully placed highs and lows, moments of dramatic action and reflection, careful builds to climactic action sequences. I can’t help but compare this film to Saving Private Ryan, which I feel was more effective at that sort of thing.

And then there’s the story. Strip away the visuals and action, what do we really have? Hundreds of thousands of soldiers trying to get off a beach, and that’s about it. They are people doing things and going places, with no personal story given for any of them that would help us really connect with them and experience their struggle on a deeper level. We don’t really get to know any of them, not even the leads. The only character with a hint of a background story was the French guy in the boat. Instead of developing characters and telling a story about how people grow and change, this is about the sights and sounds and sensory overload of war. This is not a journey, it’s an experience.

The story structure of the film is also worth noting. Nolan has a history of bending time to tell his stories (Memento, The Prestige, Inception, Interstellar), and he does it again here. We have three interconnected stories told at the same time that each span different timeframes. It’s an interesting experiment, and it’s clever how certain shots link up the separate timelines, but I’m not sure that hitting us over the head with the concept of different time spans really makes things better.

I was a little surprised at how short it was, but given how it was made, I don’t see any reason it should have gone longer. It’s not like there was more story to tell.

Acting is pretty good, though performances are limited by the impersonal nature of the story. Whitehead is OK in what might be considered the lead, and Hardy and Rylance are both appealing.

A couple of plot questions. Why does Rylance as the boat captain hastily pull away from the navy officers when he intends to fully cooperate with their mission? And why does Hardy as the pilot glide deep into German territory and give himself up rather than circle and land on the beach near the English soldiers or at least eject and parachute to safety?

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