Review – Dunkirk

After a year of anticipation and months of several different trailers, the time has finally come. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has finally hit theaters.  Nolan, whom I admit is my favorite director right now in the business, certainly knows how to build up eagerness for his projects.  He has released countless different trailers for Dunkirk since this past winter – probably the most I have ever seen for a single film.  The eagerness is justified, though, since Nolan’s films have become events in themselves and backed up the hype.  The Dark Knight is, for my money, not only the best superhero film of all-time, but also a top-10 film overall.  Inception is one of the most original, visually and mentally captivating films ever.  Interstellar beautifully wove a heartbreaking story of sacrifice and love into a unique, sci-fi masterpiece in a way unmatched by any of its kind before it.

Now, it’s time to see if Nolan can make history again with Dunkirk, a historical World War II story that has rarely been told.

The story of Dunkirk takes us back to 1940 in the northern part of France on the North Sea.  It was there that Allied forces from France, Belgium, and the United Kingdom were surrounded and trapped by the German army as the result of a WWII battle.  Amazingly, despite basically being abandoned by their allies, the soldiers were at the mercy of a makeshift rescue mission by their own civilians.  The movie tells a couple different stories at different times within the situation in an inside out, unique fashion that brings them all together in the end – a father and his son on the way in their own boat to rescue soldiers, a set of soldiers going through the struggle of trying to survive, a commander trying to do right by his men, and a fighter pilot who chooses to take the path of dire consequences for the purpose of helping his fellow man.  This true story is so crazy that if this were a fictional film, I would have said it was totally phony and could never happen.   Kudos to Nolan for bringing such a dark story of the past to light today.

With that said, Dunkirk is not a traditional war film.  In fact, you could argue it is not really a war film at all.  Dunkirk was a rescue mission, and the movie shows just that.  I, like several others, was honestly naïve to the story of Dunkirk, and was looking forward to seeing a true war film.  I wanted to be able to compare Nolan’s work here with the Platoons and the Saving Private Ryans of the world.  But after seeing Dunkirk, I realize I can’t do that.  As synonymous as they may seem on the surface, they really are nothing alike – unfortunately.

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Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) knows survival won’t be easy for he and his men in Dunkirk.  

To Nolan’s defense, though, I would argue that the aforementioned war classics can’t compare visually to Dunkirk.  While Saving Private Ryan, for instance, displayed a scary close, gruesome but true account to the audience of what it was like for a soldier during WWII better than any other film ever has,  Dunkirk captures its surroundings in such a superb, beautiful way.  Nolan’s direction and the cinematography of the scenes – the color contrasts, the underwater shots, the impressive special effects of the explosions and sinking of the ships were all spellbinding and some of Nolan’s best work to date.  If you go into this movie looking to appreciate Nolan’s renowned cinematography more so than going to see a battle or traditional wartime experience, then I think you leave the theater all smiles.

However, if you go to see Dunkirk under the impression of having your mind blown by the next great wartime classic of our generation, then you may be slightly disappointed.  I admit I was in this group.  Earlier on, I mentioned Nolan is my favorite director, and he still is.  But after watching him in previous works do things like dismantle the predecessors of the superhero and sci-fi genres in one shot each, I wanted so badly for him to do the same with the war genre.  I wanted to leave saying, “Tom Hanks needs to step his game up now with the historical war films, because Nolan set the bar higher again!”  But I didn’t find myself saying that…at all.

In the same breath, I wanted to say, “It’s going to be a tough, uphill climb for anything that comes out the rest of the year, because Dunkirk is and will be the best movie of the year.”  Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that.  Instead, it left me wanting to give the “big buzz” movies to come more of a chance to beat it.  I don’t even know if I can honestly say it has been the best film of the year to thispoint (that would be Logan or It Comes At Night for me as of now, but it’s still very early).

One thing I can honestly say Nolan legitimately let me down on is the script of the film.  As a result, the acting was dull, too.  Despite eye-popping scenery, the dialogue was very minimal, weak, and at times due to the strong accents and loud surroundings, inaudible.  It was hard for me to get attached to any of the characters, and for having a really strong cast of great actors in this film (specifically Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh), no performance truly stood out.  Despite really trying, I just couldn’t get deeply attached to this movie.

To Nolan’s defense, it is hard to truly depict any sort of film like this while having a PG-13 rating.  I hope it doesn’t sound like I am bashing this movie, because that’s not my intent.  Dunkirk is a well-done picture that makes for a really good cinematic experience.  I’d even go as far as to say this might be Nolan’s most visually stunning and purest directorial accomplishment to date, and may even get him the most Oscar nominations than any of his other previous films.  Even so, as conflicting as it may sound to the previous sentence, I still dont believe it is his best film overall.  In my opinion, it’s not close.  However, my bar is extremely high with Nolan, so “really good” isn’t good enough for me when it comes to his works.

I appreciate that Nolan stretches his own limits with each new project.  Nobody can ever say any of his movies are the same.  He has taken on superheroes, sci-fi, mindbenders, and now war.  Not only has he taken the said challenges on, but he has taken them down.  To use a boxing analogy, I don’t think Nolan got the knockout in this one, though.  The war genre went the distance, and its great films of the past are still standing tall against Dunkirk.  Now, we will wait and see if and when another film of their kind, an even better one, can knock them down.  I think a lot of people will like Dunkirk more than I did, and I really hope you do.  It’s just that for me, the attachment to the story and the film, much like the military allies of the stranded soldiers, never came.


OSCAR SCALE: 7/10 (Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing and Editing, Best Production Design, Best Original Score)