Christopher Nolan’s new movie DUNKIRK is a tense, immersive film that really puts you on the beach, on the sea, and in the air during the WWII rescue mission on the beaches of Dunkirk, France. Hundreds of thousands of allied lives were saved by civilian boating efforts when British ships couldn't make it in, and this dramatic all-out effort helped galvanize England and started to turn the war in their favor. Nolan's telling of it all is getting very strong reviews and helping to confirm his status as one of today’s most successful filmmakers. And yet…
Why was I let down by so much of this affecting period piece? And why am I continually let down by most of Nolan’s efforts? Why hasn’t he been able to shed the same mistakes that he makes in movie after movie after movie? Don’t get me wrong, DUNKIRK is a good movie, but it should have been great. It’s a phenomenal story and all the elements are there to have made it one of the greatest war films ever. But it comes up short due to some basic flaws, and they are similar flaws that have marred most of Nolan's other efforts.
A PROBLEM WITH WRITERLY SHTICK
Filmmaker Nolan came to fame with his mind-bending thriller MEMENTO back in 2000, and ever since then he’s written everything he’s directed outside of INSOMNIA (2002). In MEMENTO, as you’ll recall, the story was told backwards to underline the increasingly forgetful mind of Leonard (Guy Pearce) who suffered from short-term memory loss. The conceit also served to disorient his movie-going audience, and indeed, Nolan screwed with our expectations and ability to track what we were seeing. The twisting screenplay won a ton of awards and established Nolan as a new voice in the world of film.
Since then, however, the filmmaker seems to believe that such self-conscious conceits are one of his tropes to be employed continually. He’s written scripts that toyed with the audience, even cheated us, by withholding key information, all to amaze and confound us. It’s been a key part of his narrative in scripts like BATMAN BEGINS (2005) to THE PRESTIGE (2006), and such gimmicks kept me from embracing either fully. In BATMAN BEGINS, Nolan bent over backwards to make us believe that Ken Watanabe was Ra’s al Ghul when it was truly the identity of the character played Liam Neeson. This becomes the “A-ha!” moment in the third act, making it seem smarter than it was, when in fact, it’s such writerly shtick that is has the opposite effect.
Such self-consciousness in writing makes Nolan look like he’s trying too hard to be a brilliant writer. He wants us to realize how boldly the rug was pulled out from under us. But it's become a bit, a trick in his bag that he defaults to all too frequently now. Frankly, what would’ve been smarter in that movie, would have been for Nolan to be more respectful of the decades old Batman foil of Ra's al Ghul and write him as he had been presented in dozens of comic book storylines. Instead, most of the villain's lore was never used and it seems to suggest that Nolan feels a sense of superiority to proven material.
In THE PRESTIGE, Nolan also keeps us in the dark, trying to stay ahead of his audience, and he uses some positively hoary tricks to do so. Why, his very opening shot in that film, of all the rolling black top hats in the wintry woods isn’t paid off until the very last shot of the film. A number of times they could be explained, as they would be in normal conversation within the story, but instead, Nolan withholds. He doesn't let us know fully just how those hats are connected to Tesla’s copycat machine employed by Robert Angiers (Hugh Jackman) to ensure the maximum impact possible at the end, but holding off that long feels like he's manipulating us too blatantly.
Finally, in the last scene, when all is revealed, it seems almost too obvious, and even anti-climactic. We in the Cineplex had figured out what's going on all on our own. The revelation that the machine could clone humans as well as hats, meaning that Angiers could use it to clone himself and create a disappearing trick to would astound his Victiorian audiences, should have been more devastating to moviegoers than it ultimately is, and a lot of that has to do with Nolan's refusal to explain it early enough to be more meaningful. Granted, refusing to reveal a narrative trick until the very end may be fitting given that Nolan’s story is about magicians, but it still feels like we've been kept in the dark far too long. The "A-ha" moment becomes one of "Oh, that's what I figured."
Worse still, Nolan creates a major character in THE PRESTIGE who happens to be the right-hand man of Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), Angiers’ rival. The character appears in dozens of scenes and yet, is kept at arms’ length in the story and by Nolan’s camera. We get no real bead on him. Why? A character that significant should be getting lots of close-ups and dialogue, no? Why is Nolan so stingy with him. Simple. It’s because he happens to be Borden’s twin, albeit in disguise to keep that fact hidden from others in the story, and the character is, of course, played by Bale as well. But if you must shoot around a major character to hide a major story point, as well as an actor’s identity, then why do it? It's dishonest, really, and both the script and direction shouldn't have been so self-consciously cloying.
Still, perhaps one could argue that such cinematic tricks work in a movie about, well, the world of magicians. Fair enough, but then why does Nolan utilize similar narrative tricks in his war film DUNKIRK? Isn’t the story of the rescue dramatic enough without having to jumble around its timeline? Nolan starts by telling three different story threads – one on the land, another on the sea, and the third in the air – and he brilliantly converges them all together for the story’s climax. But before that he undermines his story threads by having one major character, that of shell-shocked British soldier Cillian Murphy, pop up in different scenes that are out-of-order of what we've been watching.
This character also is not the focus of any of the three main storylines, so why complicate an already complex narrative triptych by employing such a self-conscious narrative trick? It is quite damaging to the experience as it takes the audience out of the movie. We start to question what we're watching, and it forces us to reevaluate what we've seen with a third of the film left to play out. It’s all just too gimmicky a move and conveys on Nolan’s part a need to continually screw around with his narrative structure like he's still trying to discombobulate us like he did in MEMENTO. This story didn't need such a trope and it makes the genuine war drama start to feel crassly manipulative.
A PROBLEM WITH CHARACTERS
Nolan also has some real problems developing characters in DUNKIRK, easily the worst he's done in his film oeuvre. It's not surprising, however, as Nolan has had underdeveloped character issues many times before. He's also rewritten characters who are known far and wide in his adaptations that have left moviegoers equally confounded at what he was going for.
For example, many fans of Batman found Nolan’s three films about The Dark Knight both laudable for their serious restoration of the property after the Joel Schumacher film debacles, but also disappointing in their treatment of such well-known characters. As mentioned, Nolan’s take on Ra’s al Ghul was far from the classic comic book foil, ranked #7 on the IGN’s list of their Top 100 Comic Book Villains list. Where was the conservationist, the father to Talia, the man who admired Batman's detective skills?
And then there was the way Nolan presented the character of Bane (Tom Hardy) in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. He barely resembled the known brute from the comics or the various WB animated series. In fact, Hardy's Bane was so far afield, he should've just been an original character. And in all three movies, Nolan put far too much emphasis on Batman’s fighting skills. He became a bully, really, a thug. Where was the ‘detective’ side which Batman is supposed to exceed at? The Caped Crusader has been described over the years as half ninja, half Sherlock Holmes, but you'd never know it from Nolan's adaptation. And why, oh why, would any director encourage Bale to use that god-awful growl to play the Caped Crusader? Batman isn’t a brute. He’s more Jekyll than Hyde, but Bale and Nolan seemed to equate guttural snarling with a man acting tough. How childish.
Nolan’s characters are often hit or miss, sometimes richly vivid and other times, seriously undercooked. Almost everyone who shows up in THE PRESTIGE is strongly conceived, but in INCEPTION, what character is Joseph Gordon-Levitt supposed to be playing? Basil Exposition (from the AUSTIN POWERS movies)? Other than that rotating hallway action scene, JGL’s character is there mostly to explain all the scientific gobbledy-gook to Ellen Page’s grad student. Often times, the more cast Nolan assembles onscreen, the more difficulty he has in making each of them truly specific. And in DUNKIRK, he has dozens and dozens of characters playing a large part in the story, and virtually none of them register as much more than one-dimensional archetypes.
In fact, each of his main characters seem to be given exactly a single trait to convey. Mark Rylance’s civilian boat captain, racing to help rescue the stranded soldiers, is earnest. Kenneth Branagh’s naval commander is stalwart. James D’Arcy’s army colonel is worried. Tom Hardy’s pilot is intrepid. It also doesn’t help things that his face is covered by flight apparatus almost the entire film. (Nolan seems to think that Hardy's eyes are enough, just as that's all we could see of his face when he played Bane.) Even newcomer Harry Styles, who does a good job as a British grunt, is mostly called upon to be panicky. What, there wasn't time for him to sing a note or two to calm the waiting soldiers?
Nolan’s greatest failure in his creation of characters in DUNKIRK is that of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead in his film debut). Ostensibly the lead, he has little personality, given the amount of screen time he's given. Sure, the boyish soldier manages to cheat death repeatedly throughout, but after two plus hours spent with the guy, I couldn’t tell you anything truly significant about him. He seems merely serious all the time, but then the whole situation is such that and Tommy does nothing to counter it or enhance it. Maybe he’s supposed to be more symbol than character, but even an everyman needs some definitive traits.
We that Nolan likes to utterly rewrite DC characters who’ve been known for decades and decades, but why didn’t he rely on any of the many known stories that are part of the Dunkirk history for his telling? So many of the actual stories are nothing short of extraordinary, but you don't find them here. One British civilian even canoed all the way to the shores of France to do his part, but you don't see moments like that here. Instead, Nolan writes fictional characters, yet fails to give them much to define them. It's so frustrating, especially when one key character dies in the story and the most notable attribute he possesses is his argyle sweater vest.
Perhaps a lot of character development ended up on the cutting room floor, but stronger characters would have helped make the film even more intense and it would have given the cast more to play with. Instead, they're sketchy and it keeps the characters at arms’ length. At times, the film feels almost dispassionate. And that's something a war film, particularly one about overcoming the most incredible of odds, should never feel like.
A PROBLEM WITH TIME AND EXPOSITION
At the very beginning of DUNKIRK, some solemn white lettered titles appear on black screen to give us a sense of where we are in the story of WWII as the movie begins. One chapter is entitled “The Mole” and this story about the men stranded on the beaches will unfold over a week’s time. The second chapter is called “The Sea”, the one about Rylance and his sons coming to the rescue in their civilian boat, and this strand of the narrative takes place in a single day. The third one is called “The Air” and it takes place in a single hour. We don't know that at the time, but it seems to set it all up as parallel narratives. That is not true in the least, but you wouldn't know it from the way Nolan starts things off.
That means from the very get-go, Nolan is playing tricks with time and exposition. Even worse, he doesn't tell some of the basics of what was going on with WWII at the time to give any of these three threads proper context. If you're familiar with the story of Dunkirk, you're okay, but even someone like me who knows more than the average Joe about it, was scratching his head as Nolan just dives in head first with little exposition.
To make matters worse, Nolan entitles two of his stories accurately with the proper terms sea and air. The land story doesn’t get named accordingly. Instead, he calls that one “The Mole.” The name refers to a pier there in Dunkirk, but unless you pay close attention in the hour after that, you might not realize that. Instead, moviegoers might be looking for a traitor in the story as that is what mole means to most of us. So why be inconsistent in the third title, let alone use a term that has a meaning that belies what is going on here? It’s such miscalculations like this, occurring in the very first seconds, that worried me. All Nolan needed to do was set it up with some historical grounding and call it "The Land", "The Sea", and "The Air." Is Nolan again trying to be way too hard to be clever? Sorry, but there is no cleverness in deliberate confusion like that.
What’s especially confounding as well is that the film is only 107 minutes long. The standard film length is two hours, as we all know, so why not take advantage of that? Nolan should've expanded his story to include more character development and details from the real history of Dunkirk. At the very least, he could have used titles to give us longer and a more thorough set-up. Usually, Nolan has exactly the opposite problem. He loves to indulge his stories with epic lengths. BATMAN BEGINS was 2 hours and 20 minutes, THE DARK KNIGHT clocked in at 2 hours and 30 minutes, and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES came in at a whopping 2 hours and 44 minutes. Here, he has a legitimate epic and he shortchanges it.
DUNKIRK does have so much to laud. It’s cinematography, production design, sound design, and editing are all top-notch. But this film is feels too remote at times and fails to create characters that are three-dimensional. Indeed, it is tight, taut and suspenseful. It showcases the valor of the allied effort and the utter craziness of war. And its editing and fractured storyline certainly conveys the discombobulation that the soldiers felt as they rushed to be rescued. And in a summer of a lot of sequels and reboots, this stands out as adult fare that is worthy and wholly admirable. But DUNKIRK should have been more devastating than it is, and with stronger characters, less screenwriting shtick, and a better overall sense of what was going on within the specifics of WWII at that time, this could have been one for the ages. It’s still a must-see film, and one sure to be remembered in many ways come awards time later in 2017. Christopher Nolan's DUNKIRK is a very good film. But it should have been a masterpiece.