Dunkirk is a technical marvel.
It is a cinematic thrill ride that intercuts three sequences (soldiers on the beach, a pleasure craft heading to Dunkirk to rescue soldiers and a fighter pilot flying to cover the evacuations) to great effect. With a rolling and ever building score by Hans Zimmer the film has been cut together with an urgency that keeps us watching and moving us despite the film being a soulless machine with cardboard cut outs at its center.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the film, but I don’t think of it as anything more than a cinematic rollercoaster. I was carried along for 105 minutes and deposited at the other end no worse for wear and looking the next thing to carry me along. Yes, the set pieces are spectacular but other than the emotion we bring to them and feelings we impart to the situations we are never given anyone to care for.
There are several problems with the film that kept me giving myself over to it.
First, as I said above, there are no characters. Outside of Kenneth Branagh and Cillian Murphy every one is a kind of stoic tightlipped soul. Even the most well drawn character played by Mark Rylance is little more than a stereotypical Englishman doing his duty. All the soldiers on the beach, including Harry Styles, simply stare and look shell shocked. And as glowing as Styles reviews have been I had no idea who he was. He never stood out. He was no better nor worse than any of the hundred other men in the sequences. It would have made no difference if it was him or another nameless soldier.
I completely understand that Nolan is kind of trying to give us the everyman experience. I understand it but there is nothing beyond knowing what he is doing. He never gives us anything to latch on to, everyone is playing their soldiers exactly the same- shell shocked.
What bothered me is that in watching old film footage of Dunkirk or almost any war in general, people are never this faceless. Men all stand differently. All men are dressed slightly differently, here everyone looks exactly the same. Everyone is interchangeable- even down to the point where everyone is clean shaven. Nine days on the beach after a great deal of time in combat and everyone looks hot tired, sweaty and as if they just went to the barber.
I’m nitpicking I know but this is the neatest was film I’ve ever seen. It’s not so much the streets of the city, but on the beaches there is nothing anywhere but neat lines of men. It’s all Spartan. There is no debris of hundreds of thousands of men existing in a place for days
Most amazingly is the film is bloodless. TI don’t think there is any blood in the film except on a bandage on the soldier that Styles and his friend carry to the ship at the start after that there is nothing. Bombs blow up crowds of men or planes strafe them but outside of the odd shape falling we see nothing. Death, like the Germans, is kept off screen and when it appears it’s little more than phantom. Other than drowning and sinking ships there is nothing.
And the beaches rather empty. Branagh talks of hundreds of thousands of Englishmen escaping but there is no sign of them- not really. But there were also thousands of French and Belgians, not to mention other nationalities on the beaches as well but there is no sign of them. For the epic tale Nolan is telling it is surprisingly small scale.
Much of the film is little more than a fragmented retelling of what happened with no context (the film is not even placed in context of the war itself, it’s a random event). Its only in the closing minutes when we have one man tell the soldiers that surviving is enough or we hear Churchill’s speech read by Styles do we get any sort of meaning. Worse other than the opening lines and what we carry with us we really don’t know why this is important or how the men and women got there. The film is the event isolated from history (unless you bring it with you) or from emotion.
And yet instead of being dull the film is watchable. Nolan achieves this because of his technical flair. We have the fragmented narrative which builds suspense. We have Harry Styles having everything happen to him with at least three ships being sunk from under him, planes bombing him on the beach and the Germans taking pot shots from off camera (though I’m still trying to figure out how the incoming tide can lift the trawler and get it out to sea when it was full of holes -or if that could have happened since no one turned on the motors or went deck one they were clear of rifle range). Nolan is clever enough to hook our interest even if he never gets our hearts.
Lee Smith’s editing is certain to be a front runner for the Oscar since it, coupled with the hellacious sound design (another a certain Oscar winner) and Hans Zimmer’s ever building score (yea an Oscar here too) drive the film and move the audience even the lack of characters disconnect us emotionally from the film. It is their skill which makes us want to watch and nothing else.
Dunkirk’s technical brilliance moved me across time but it’s lack of a human center never stirred my heart.