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Film Review: “Dunkirk” Never Quite Emerges from the Fog of War

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | July 21st, 2017

Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017) 2½ out of 4 stars.

Film poster: “Dunkirk”

Christopher Nolan’s latest epic – this one grounded in actual historical events, for once – has received such near-unanimous praise from other film critics that it was with some disappointment that I realized, halfway through, that I was not prepared to deliver my own panegyric. Though made with the director’s usual technical mastery and filled with individual sequences that pack a solid dramatic punch, Dunkirk never quite comes together as either coherent narrative or metaphysical meditation. War is hell. Yes, understood. Soldiers behave both bravely and badly when tested in the crucible of battle. Beyond the 70mm format (which only some viewers will be able to see) and some initially interesting temporal gamesmanship, there is nothing here to elevate the story to a new examination of the human condition. It’s a war movie, and a muddled one at that – though gripping enough in certain places – and certainly not as momentous as the elegiac musical accompaniment would have us believe.

After an initial opening title card that explains the given circumstances of the siege of British forces at Dunkirk, on the northern French coast, in the late spring of 1940, we meet one of our three main characters, a young solider named Tommy (according to the credits, though I don’t remember hearing his name), played with moving intensity by newcomer Fionn Whitehead. After his unit is attacked in town, Tommy makes his way to the beach, where he is greeted by the sight of a vast expanse of sand filled with demoralized troops, virtually no ships nearby, and Luftwaffe dive bombers rapidly approaching. It’s a brilliantly conceived, if depressing, vista, perfectly encapsulating the hopelessness of the British position before the daring rescue that will soon follow.

Fiona Whitehead as Tommy in the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller “DUNKIRK,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. [Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon]
We cut from there to England, where small boats prepare to set sail for the French side of the channel, and then from there to the skies, where three members of the Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) are similarly en route to lend aid. The interesting conceit of these three different intercut sections is that they take place at different times – at least at first – eventually converging in the timeline of the final evacuation. The beach is the earliest (succinctly labelled “one week), the boats next (“one day”), and the airplanes closest to the end (“one hour”). As much as I enjoyed this back and forth and the guessing game it provokes, by the midway point of the film it felt more like a gimmick than a storytelling device that might lend greater meaning to the well-worn World War II movie genre. If anything, as entertaining as it is, the clever manipulation of time merely serves to obfuscate the fact that Nolan (Interstellar) has no fresh revelations to share.

Still, much is worth watching for certain aspects of the mise-en-scène and the acting, to say nothing of the brilliant cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her). Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), as our main small-ship captain, and Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road), as our main R.A.F. pilot, are both strong, as are most members of the large ensemble cast. Unfortunately, the disjointed screenplay keeps us from ever fully engaging in the devastation at hand. Instead, we marvel, from a distance, at the directorial wizardry, the drama kept firmly at bay, though the score, by Hans Zimmer (Inception), works overtime to bring us closer to the horror (and glory). Movies need a script, first and foremost, and this one – also by Nolan – never quite comes together, though there is nevertheless a lot to admire in the attempt. Half a film is better than none, I suppose.

A scene from the Warner Bros. Pictures action thriller “DUNKIRK,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. [Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon]

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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