Rogoway’s Reviews: Christopher Nolan’s War Epic Dunkirk

The race against time thriller is no doubt entertaining, but strange creative choices make it a lesser film than it could have easily been.

byTyler Rogoway|
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There's no doubt that Dunkirk is a hit. One of Hollywood's hottest directors and creative minds, Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar) delivered what is surely a unique war epic, and a highly entertaining one at that. But even though the film may succeed in the most obvious of and loudest of ways, it fails in smaller, more subdued but still critical aspects. In the end we are left with a relatively thrilling experience, but one filled with seemingly odd and somewhat distracting creative choices, which work to keep the film from rising to the top of the genre. 

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Spoilers ahead, turn back now if that type of thing ruins your day!

Let's be clear, Dunkirk is an action thriller. It literally starts with a bang and builds in momentum and tension until its final intertwined crescendo. Above all else, the film reminds you that Nolan is an absolute master of blending sound, cinematography, and often times temporally complex editing to make a picture more than the sum of its parts. When it comes to those merits, and they are substantial, the movie was brilliant. 

Nolan also took some risks by throwing out the usual tropes that have populated these types of movies in the past. Namely, there is no love story. In fact, there is very little character development of any kind. This will leave some viewers feeling chilly when walking out into the light of the concession stands after the film's relatively tidy 106 minute run time is up, but I found it refreshing. 

Additionally, in Dunkirk the audience never sees a single German soldier. Instead the movie's nemesis is the passage of time. This is truly unorthodox storytelling for the genre, and works quite well. It also highlights the unique dynamics of the situation many allied troops found themselves in. But some viewers who don't know the Dunkirk story going in may feel let down by the lack of running gun battles and Panzer tanks. 

Yes this film depicts the origins of the term the "Dunkirk Spirit," which will play much better contextually in the UK than in the US. The evacuation of Dunkirk, and the battles that proceeded it, are a major source of national pride in Great Britain—something akin to their Apollo 13 moment, albeit with much grander stakes. But the historical accuracy of the movie as well as some of its rickety set pieces were disappointing, and not just for this defense writer who has heard the story many times before, but also for friends who had a much looser handle of the source material.

Nolan on the set of Dunkirk. , AP

My biggest gripe with Nolan's Dunkirk was that it stumbled when it came to depicting the sheer scale of the event. This sounds preposterous considering the director's ability to turn huge concepts into readily consumable cinema. And maybe the high hopes that go along with his talent being attached to a film are part of this disappointment. It also sounds ironic considering the movie was shot on the largest mainstream "film" format around—70mm. With Dunkirk it almost seems as if everything was grand in scale but the depiction of the evacuation itself. This served to undermine the impact of the film's complex finale and maybe the point of the movie as a whole. 

Nolan relied heavily on practical effects when making Dunkirk instead of gobs of CGI or green screen wizardly. I applaud that, and greatly enjoyed seeing real Spitfires buzzing around over the English Channel, and real actors pulling off real stunts in choppy water. But there is a time and place for CGI, and when the movie needed it most, and still in a very sparingly manner—for the widest of shots—it failed to produce. Instead we were left with the impression that the evacuation of Dunkirk involved dozens of ships and thousands of men, not hundreds of ships—close to a thousands—and hundreds of thousands of men—nearly half a million. 

More simply put, the vacant feel of the sandy beaches and bodies of water depicted in the film removed me from the world Nolan was trying to create. It was a contradictory distraction, and a totally puzzling one. 

In some ways, it felt like you were watching a film from the 1960s shot on some magically high quality film for the era. It all seemed like a relatively small affair considering its source material, which created an odd tension between dialogue describing the scale of what we should be seeing and what we see with our own eyes. 

Nolan used cardboard cutouts to up the numbers of "troops" on Dunkirk beach, but it really wasn't enough., AP

Once again, this discrepancy could have been overlooked 30 years ago, but today, when television shows can afford believable CGI enhanced wide shots of great battles, it's inexcusable. There were also small areas where CGI could have cleaned up or enhanced production mistakes and the limitations of superficial set dressings over modern buildings, and out of timeframe objects left in frame. Other issues, like the use of more modern naval ships as set pieces, seemed beneath this level of filmmaking too, but that type of thing could have been overlooked if the other issues were cleaned up in post production.

One particular setting choice was the most puzzling, and really jolted me out of the moment at the worst possible time. The main characters are seen in a train car at the end of the film. The train car was clearly from decades after the war, like the late 1970s or 1980s. It was a bizarre and undermining moment in the film. I have no clue how this was overlooked, but it underlined to the larger issues I mentioned earlier. 

Obviously most of this was a conscious choice, but a logical or a creatively justified one? One would have a hard time arguing how.

One would be advised not to look closely at the background while enjoying Dunkirk, bad set dressings and production choices could really remove you from the moment. Here the Dunkirk beachfront is being modified sparingly for the film., AP

Then there was the orderly and overtly sanitary depiction of the event itself. Yes the British and allied forces showed stoic restraint during their seemingly futile wait for transport across the channel, but it wasn't nearly as orderly or as sterile as what is depicted in the film. In fact, most of the soldiers looked like they just stepped out of the costuming trailers in fresh uniforms, a far cry from what the allied forces would have looked like after being on the run for days or even weeks prior to entering a siege-like state along Dunkirk's shores.

The Royal Air Force was the real star of the movie, almost to a strange degree. The depiction of aerial engagements were pretty much standard movie affair—relatively undynamic close formation flying at low altitude. But the 70mm format the movie was shot in does capture the Spitfires beautifully at times, and the in-cockpit shots and sound didn't glamorize the "nuts and bolts" reality of piston engined fighters of the era, which was nice. 

Still, the Spitfire's almost laughably endless ammunition magazine that only Hollywood can provide hurt the movie's hardcore cred. A Spitfire had about a dozen or so seconds of firing time if I remember correctly, but these Spitfires might as well have been X-Wings considering their seemingly endless ammunition reserves. 

Aerial scenes were captured traditionally, by actually filming historic aircraft near the French coastlines. , AP

Pilots' inability to hit stationary targets at point-blank range was also an annoying lapse in authenticity, although filmmakers have traditionally sacrificed realism for narrative ease when it comes to dogfights. But maybe the ending scenes, where the hero Spitfire pilot, played by Tom Hardy, seems to glide for hours at low level—even doing a flyby and taking out another aircraft—before making a needless beach landing in enemy held territory at sunset, was the most eye roll inducing and needless feat of all. Then again there was even a scene where a heavily laden private catch, only capable of a handful of knots at flank speed, literally dodged a strafing run by a BF-109.  

Once again, most of these sequences seemed like childish distractions, not a glorious example of artistic license.

Another strange choice was how the French were depicted in the film—largely as cowards that couldn't save themselves. This was simply not representative of the big historical picture. The French not only helped with their own boats during the evacuation, but their soldiers held off the Germans so that British and other allied troops could escape. Many were killed or taken prisoner after standing their ground even though they knew that doing so was likely to be a death sentence. 

Nolan is able to largely cover up Dunkirk's misfires with his incredible knack for pacing and the use of sound and score to keep viewers engaged. But the existence of these issues in a film that clearly attempts to set itself apart from other war films via chilly realism makes them more damning in retrospect. 

A good portion of the film takes place inside Supermarine Spitfires. , AP

Without hardcore adhesion to accuracy, and without any deep character development, and relatively little dialogue for that matter, the story that was depicted could have occurred on a far away moon in a science fiction setting and it would have paid off in a similar manner. 

None of this makes Dunkirk a bad movie per se, far from it in fact. It is a good film, one that I recommend seeing in IMAX during its silver screen run. In fact, if action and suspense is all you're looking for it is probably a great movie. But its blatant errors and odd creative choices keep it from rising to the top of its genre. And above all else, its inability to depict the grand scale of the historical event it is supposed to portray, meant the payoff was less than it could have been in the end. 

Rogoway's review rating: 7G out of 9G.

Rogoway's Reivews G rating meter. 

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