I am a huge Nolan fan so I am a little sad to say that I didn’t get to watch Dunkirk in IMAX or glorious 70mm. In fact I’ve never seen a Nolan film in anything but a standard 35mm movie theatre. The experience, of course, is not as great but at the end of the day I’m still a subject to his unique stories.
Dunkirk, Nolan’s first film based off a historical event, follows the evacuation of 300 000 British, French, Belgian and Dutch soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk during WWII. While it isn’t mind boggling or a sci-fi epic, Dunkirk has Nolan sprinkled all over it, from its non-linear storytelling all the way to the colour palette. So, does that mean it’s any good?
While Memento immerses viewers through storytelling that mimics the perception of its protagonists, and Inception through its mind boggling universe, Dunkirk immerses viewers through sound. The sound effects in the movie are loud. Too loud that it sometimes makes it hard to discern some of the dialogue at times. Nonetheless, amplifying the whizzing of bullets, sounds of distant explosions, and roars of warplanes is a great way to encapsulate the chaotic atmosphere of war. In addition, the urgency and anxiety of British soldiers is felt throughout due to the tick! of Hans Zimmer’s score which is heard from film’s opening seconds and does not rest until the very last moments.
After pouring through r/movies and Youtube reviews, it seems that a common point of criticism for Dunkirk is that the evident lack of exposition and character development doesn’t allow for sympathy to be made towards any of the soldiers. While I understand where these comments stand, I feel that this would only be true if Nolan intended for viewers to have an emotional connection with the characters. Instead, Nolan’s creative decision was to make viewers feel as the characters do rather than feel for them.
In fact, it is quite clear that Nolan intended to shatter Hollywood conventions of a war film to the extent that Dunkirk doesn’t feel like a war film at all. There is no storyline which depicts the soldier’s life at home. We know nothing about any of the character’s loved ones. There is no protagonists and there is no hero. Besides the German propaganda flyer seen in the first moments of the film (as shown to the left), the politics of the war is hardly discussed. To paraphase Nolan himself, Dunkirk is like watching the third act for another movie. The backstory to the setting, which would typically be included within the first two acts, is absent and we are indeed flung right into action. The film trusts that viewers have enough historical knowledge on this event, or read the synopsis at least, to understand the situation presented. The heavy exposition often featured in modern movies is quite a mockery of audience intelligence and I truly acknowledge Nolan, as he has down in his last projects, for trusting the viewer’s knowledge here.
In true Nolan fashion, Dunkirk manipulates time to tell its story in three different perspectives: land, sea and air which transpire in three different time spans. The land, or the mole, take place in about a week, the skirmishes in the sky take place in about an hour and about one day on the boats. Dunkirk’s storytelling, therefore, resembles that of a documentary with its ability to edit events that occurred at separate points in time and still intertwine them in a cohesive manner. However, not to say that this non-linear narrative isn’t effective, but it doesn’t pay off to anything. What makes great non-linear films like Pulp Fiction and even Nolan’s own Memento so great is that its disjointed structure keeps viewers guessing from start to finish. Both films have a big final pay off that connects their opening scene with their very last resulting in that great “Aha” moment. But in Dunkirk there isn’t this moment and the film ends rather abruptly.
So to answer my question in this review’s intro, yes Dunkirk is a good movie. Is it Nolan’s best? Not quite. But this doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. I do believe, after watching it a little over a week ago, that it will be Nolan’s first Oscar nod simply due to how he kept viewers so incredibly engaged for the film’s entire duration; and he did so through sound.
Only time can tell how Dunkirk will hold up in the future, but for the time being it is certainly a great addition to this summer’s great run of movies.