Disappointing, was my first thought after seeing this latest story from unconventional director Christopher Nolan. Like most of you, seeing this film’s gripping World War II movie trailer earlier this year instantly made it one of my most anticipated films of 2017.
Moviegoers and hardcore Nolan fans know that the atypical and Academy Award-nominated director has a fetish with time and risky storytelling techniques in his films. Nolan’s affection towards temporal distortions, timestamps and wormholes is well-known and earmarked much of his work, most notably 2000’s “Memento” and 2014’s “Interstellar.” He even cited time in his decision to depart from the successful Batman superhero line after three blockbuster Dark Knight hits. Which brings us to the director’s most unorthodox movie to date: “Dunkirk.”
Based on the true-life beachside evacuation of soldiers between May 26 and June 4 in 1940, “Dunkirk” packs a powerful cinematographic punch for viewers’ eyes. Unfortunately, it offers little historical education on the setting and background leading up to, and including, the evacuation itself.
I found “Dunkirk” a muddled presentation of shallow, incoherent sub-stories with absolutely no character development. Nolan thinly presents three intertwined perspectives of the evacuation using one hour, one day and one-week timestamps to narrate the siege from the surrounding Nazi army. Realism abounds as the film’s camera-work and attention to military details (aircraft, uniforms, etc.) capture these competing segments.
My biggest heartburn in “Dunkirk” is Nolan’s storytelling process being disjointed and having characters that are not only difficult to tell apart, but also share so little about themselves with the audience. Nolan’s constant focus on enemy suppressive fire (from random German bullets and precision bombing a la “Saving Private Ryan”) for 90-plus minutes ultimately leaves the audience numb—particularly without any historical context or adequate dialogue for further explanation.
Nolan missed the boat (pun intended) on the true heroes over those nine days in 1940. All we see and hear in Dunkirk, France, is a defeated, demoralized and hopeless Allied force of 400,000 stranded by military strategic incompetence. The great reveal at the end—where true civilian heroics emerge—comes too little and too late. Which is a shame to the people of Dover, England, and their amazing maritime flotilla story to tell. Churchill was right: “Wars aren’t won by evacuations.” And neither are great movies that simply try to shell-shock viewers with drawn out, intense violence that provides no investment in its characters.