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 the dramatic all-out effort by the Englanders helped galvanize the country 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 Nolan's movie-going audience, and indeed, the filmmaker screwed with our expectations and ability to track what we were seeing. The twisting screenplay won a ton of awards and established him as a bold new voice in the world of film.
Since then, however, Nolan seems to believe that such self-conscious conceits are one of his tropes to be employed continually. Thus, he’s written scripts that toyed over and over again with the audience, and even cheated us by withholding key information. It’s been a key part of his narrative in scripts like BATMAN BEGINS (2005) and 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 became the “A-ha!” moment in the third act, making it seem smarter than it was, but such writerly shtick had the exact opposite effect.
Such self-consciousness in his writing makes Nolan look like he’s wants desperately to be perceived as a brilliant writer. He wants us to think he's boldly and continually pulling the rug out from under us, but such attempts have now become a "bit". It seems more like a trick in his bag that he defaults to all too frequently rather than shrewd writing that is meaningful. 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 past comic book storylines. Instead, almost none of the villain's famous lore was used in Nolan's story and it seemed to suggest that he may have even felt a sense of superiority over the proven material.
In THE PRESTIGE, Nolan also kept us in the dark, trying to stay ahead of the audience, and he used some positively hoary tricks to do so. His very opening shot in that film, of all the rolling black top hats in the wintry woods, doesn't get paid off until the very last shot of the film. It could have been explained a number of times throughout the film, but instead, Nolan withholds. He doesn't let us know fully how those hats are connected to Tesla’s copycat machine employed by Robert Angiers (Hugh Jackman) until those last seconds, and in doing so, Nolan probably felt he was maximizing the impact of the reveal, but by holding back so long it made the reveal feel much too blatantly manipulative.
And in that last scene, when all was indeed revealed, it became anti-climactic. The audience had figured out what's going on all on our own. As suspected, Tesla's machine could clone humans too, as well as those hats, and that allowed Angiers to clone himself and create his sublime disappearing trick. The reveal should have been more devastating to moviegoers than it ultimately was, and the reason it failed to be as powerful was that we knew what was going on before the big finish. Nolan kept us in the dark for far too long and his "A-ha" moment became one more akin to "Oh, that's what I figured."
Worse still, Nolan created a major character in THE PRESTIGE who was a complete cheat storytelling-wise. The right-hand man of Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), Angiers’ rival, is a character who appeared in dozens of scenes in the film and yet little is revealed about him and Nolan's camera gives him almost no close-ups. Thus, we got no real bead on the guy. Why is Nolan so stingy with him? Simple. It’s because he happened to be Borden’s twin, albeit in disguise to keep that fact hidden from others in the story. The character is played by Bale too, in not very effective makeup, but Nolan wanted to keep us from discovering who the character was and who was playing him. Thus, Nolan shot around him, but that's not normal for a major character, and if he needed to do so to hide major story points, as well as the actor’s identity who played him, then why do it in the first place? It's dishonest, 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, 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 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 again shows off Nolan’s need to continually screw around with his narrative structure. He's still trying to discombobulate us, just like he did back 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 characters many times before. He's also rewritten and put his spin on characters who are known far and wide from their previous forms, without a lot of respect for their storied history.
While many fans of Nolan's Batman films found his take on the Dark Knight incredibly admirable, especially after the debacle of what filmmaker Joel Schumacher did with the property, he was also criticized for his shabby treatment of well-known characters from the comic source material. Nolan’s take on Ra’s al Ghul was far from the classic comic book foil, one who was so beloved he ended up being ranked #7 on the IGN’s list of their Top 100 Comic Book Villains list. Where was the original character who was a conservationist, a loving and devoted father to Talia, let alone the man who greatly admired Batman's expert detective skills?
And then there was the way Nolan presented the character of Bane (Tom Hardy) in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. What we see in the film 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 and a thug. Where was the ‘detective’ side? 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 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 be 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 Hardy's face is covered by flight apparatus almost the entire film. (Nolan seems to think that Hardy's eyes are enough, since that's all we could see of his face here as well as when he played Bane.) Even newcomer Harry Styles, who does a good job as a British grunt, is mostly called upon to be one thing - panicked. Wasn't there time for him to sing a note or two to calm the waiting soldiers? Something to give him a little extra characterization, or even play off that casting choice?
Nolan’s greatest failure in his creation of characters for 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 serious all the time, but then the whole situation is. Maybe Tommy is supposed to be more symbol than character, but even an everyman needs definitive traits.
We know that Nolan liked rewriting DC characters who’ve been known for decades and decades, but why didn’t he rely on any of the known stories that are part of the Dunkirk history in his telling? So many of the actual stories are nothing short of extraordinary, but you won't find any of them here. One British civilian canoed all the way to the shores of France to do his part, but you don't see moments like that in the film. Instead, Nolan writes fictional characters and yet fails to give them much of anything 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 its story about the men stranded on the beaches will unfold over a week’s time. The second chapter is called “The Sea”, the one with Rylance's captain and his sons coming to the rescue in their civilian boat, and this part of the narrative takes place in a single day. The third strand is called “The Air” and it takes place in a single hour. We don't know this at the set-up as it seems that Nolan is creating parallel narratives. But this is not true in the least. Still, 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 once again. Even worse, he doesn't inform us of some of the basics of what was going on with WWII in 1940 to give any of these three threads proper context. If you're familiar with the story of Dunkirk you'd be fine, but even someone like me who knows more than the average Joe about the battle, was scratching his head in confusion as Nolan just dives in head first with precious 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 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 the miscalculations like this, occurring in the very first seconds, that had me worried from the get-go. All Nolan needed to do was set things up with genuine historical grounding and call it "The Land", "The Sea", and "The Air." Was Nolan again trying to be way too clever again?
What’s especially confounding as well is that the film is only 107 minutes long. The standard film length is two hours, so why not take advantage of that amount of time? 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 a more thorough set-up. Usually, length is Nolan's worse sin. He loves to indulge his stories with epic lengths, even if they're essentially fluff. 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 yet 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 feels too remote at times and it fails to create three-dimensional characters. It is tight, taut and suspenseful, and it showcases the valor of the allied effort and the utter craziness of war. And yes, its fractured storyline and editing do convey the discombobulation that the soldiers must have felt as they rushed about, trying desperately to get off that beach. And in a summer of too many sequels and reboots, this film does stand out as wholly admirable adult fare. 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. DUNKIRK is a very good film. But it should have been a masterpiece.