Gimmicky Timelines and a Shaky Plot Undo This War Epic
Dunkirk is the new mega-blockbuster from British director Christopher Nolan; a Trial By Films favorite (The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar). Drawing from a true story for the first time in his career, Dunkirk recounts the experiences of the men involved in the British evacuation of Dunkirk, France during the late Spring of 1940. Britain was hanging on by a thread against the pressing Nazi army in mainland Europe, and the possible surrender of the 300,000+ British servicemen on the beaches of Dunkirk could have changed the tide of the war. Filmed on location, Nolan cast young and unknown actors; and his typical nontraditional storytelling techniques were front and center, to bring to life the massive evacuation mission.
In true Christopher Nolan fashion, a linear storyline would be far too simple of a plot structure for him. Having used reserve storytelling (Memento) and playing with the concept of time (Inception) and space (Interstellar), Nolan splits Dunkirk into three separate, overlapping storylines told at different pacing. The three stories represent the three threads of the Dunkirk mission; in the air, on the water, and on the ground. Each of these three stories start at different times leading up to the evacuation, an hour, a day, and a week prior; and Nolan interweaves these until they meet in the finale. Novel in style, and intriguing to a viewer trying to unwrap the sequence of the events unfolding; one must ask – What is the reason for this screenwriting decision? The pace of each film narrative is significantly different, with the fighter pilots at a logically more exciting pace then the ground troops awaiting rescue or death on the beaches. Keeping all of the exciting moments – the aerial battles, the final life-and-death struggles on the beaches and in the sinking ships until the end would have made the first half of Dunkirk very tedious. Nolan identified that shortcoming of filming an evacuation and did his best to avoid it. He is creative in his approach to circumvent the issues, but the storytelling technique still appears as a gimmick that serves no purpose other than to distract viewers from a poorly developed plot.
Known for achingly long epics, Nolan’s Dunkirk comes in at a brisk 106 minutes; a far cry from the 161 minute average of his last three features. Even with this compressed length, the lack of a robust screenplay is evident. Dunkirk is an accomplishment from a visual and auditory perspective, but a film must provide a worthwhile arc; otherwise it is simply a conduit to display technological achievement – à la Avatar (a film that had no equal in technology at the time, yet absent a meaningful story).
With over 300,000 men on the beaches, Nolan finds way to make Dunkirk so ‘small’ that eye-winking coincidences become too much to bear. The third or fourth time one narrative’s lead is in the background of a different plot line; viewers should start to see the heavy-handed technique Nolan uses to try to create emotional relevance in a plot spread so thinly across three stories. Tom Hardy’s fighter pilot isn’t flying to save Brits, he is flying to save ‘the brit’ we’ve been following the entire film. Nolan does his best to make us care about the soldiers being followed, but Dunkirk‘s cheap tricks and screenwriting short-cuts don’t add up. On top of that, the film set-up is absent the historical context necessary to understand the stakes involved, with the isolation of the Dunkirk setting from the rest of the war hard to put in proper perspective. Finally, with Nolan’s characters making wildly odd and chance decisions that serve only to set-up iconic shots or later story cues; Dunkirk feels quite a bit longer than the 106 minutes it is.
With all of the many, many story issues outlined; credit must be given to Nolan and his camera and audio wizardry. Never one to disappoint, Nolan’s production design is detailed and classic; from the soldiers uniforms to the 1940s era luxury yachts. Cinematography is typical fare for Nolan, with close-up shots of actor faces creating the claustrophobic dread the soldiers felt with the Germans bearing down on them. Dunkirk excel most during the aerial sequences; which stand as the most exciting moments in the film. Regular collaborator/composer Hans Zimmer continues to use ‘Shepherd Tones‘ to create constantly overwhelming tension throughout the film, from the tick-tick-tick as the credits start all the way through the conclusion.
It must be noted that, with an evacuation as the film’s ending, there was no grand Hollywood finale; and some viewers may feel shorted when all of that auditory and visual tension is for naught. This feels like a Hollywood contradiction; a build-up with no ‘payoff’. Between that, gimmicky narrative timelines, and devoid a healthy plot; was Nolan testing out a personal directing challenge – trying to see if he could make a film absent all of the necessary ingredients?
- Screenwriting: 2/10 – Nolan’s weak plot does little to veil the gimmicky narrative structure.
- Production Design: 7/10 – Credible and authentic even to the trained eye; from fighter jet all the way down to serviceman’s boot.
- Cinematography: 8/10 – Everything you’d expect in a sprawling Nolan war epic.
- Musical Score: 6/10 – Not sure how much we should applaud composer Hans Zimmer, as he continues to use the same auditory illusions over and over again to manufacture tension in Nolan films.
5/10 – As with any Christopher Nolan film, viewers can expect the very best in terms of camerawork, musical accompaniment, and production design; but a week plot and manufactured feel to the parallel narratives keep Dunkirk from even coming close to the best Nolan has to offer.