For the second time in a row, I find myself reviewing a movie that undoubtedly has flaws on a character level, and yet is a movie that I find myself recommending solely on the technical merits of the filmmaking. Last time, it was Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, where the film leaned on archetypes in favor of stylish, musical style and editing. But now comes Christopher Nolan’s visceral, intense Dunkirk, which focuses on the experience of those living through the Dunkirk evacuation in frightening, relentless detail, eschewing all but the barest character beats. And while a lack of almost any character depth would be an issue in almost every other film, Dunkirk makes it work, simply by virtue of focusing on the experience of the war as a whole, and making that the story of the film.
Unfolding in an unconventional three-part structure (more on that in a moment), Dunkirk follows the evacuation on three fronts: land (represented by the soldiers waiting to get home), sea (following the English citizens sailing their private crafts to the beach), and air (I. This case, a pair of RAF pilots running interference against the bombers constantly straying the beach and the boats). There’s little dialogue to the film; our main soldiers barely speak, our pilots are largely restricted to mission talk, and the only characters we somewhat get to know are our three primary civilians, a father and son accompanied by a close family friend. Instead, Nolan throws us into the action early and fast, letting the characters be defined by their action – and just as importantly, their reactions, as they cope with the danger around them. For the beach-stranded soldiers, that’s relentless German strafing of guns and bombs; for the boatsmen, it’s the constant and worrying presence of those same bombers, and the worry of the stranded men they find along the way; and for the pilots, it’s the worry that they may look behind them to find themselves in the gunsights of an enemy fighter.
As he did in Inception, Nolan plays the three threads against each other, letting the tension build in each simultaneously and cutting among them to keep the dread and unease building without pause. Instead of keeping that to the climax, though, Nolan pretty much juggles tension and dread through the entire film, with only one notable pause along the way that I can think of. Meanwhile, bombs are dropping, men are dying, ships are sinking, and there’s hardly a moment to catch your breath. The end effect is equal parts nerve-wracking, exhausting, and incredibly effective – rarely has a film managed to make audiences feel the dread of war so constantly without giving them an easy out.
That goes double if you’re lucky enough to see the film in 70mm as Nolan intended. Often using every bit of the massive frame, Nolan immerses you into this world, particularly in the aerial combat sequences that emphasize the space and the distance at all times, or an early overhead shot of the pier, beach, and water in an incredible tableau that drives home the scope and horrible beauty of all of this. Even more effective, though, is the deafening and relentless sound of the IMAX system, whose overwhelming and brutal roar reminds you that war isn’t exactly a quiet affair.
So, yes, on every technical and filmmaking level, Dunkirk is a knockout. But in other ways, it has some deep, critical flaws that keep it from being the masterpiece it could have been. The biggest is the lack of character work; while it’s understandable that the film focuses on the experience of war and the nature of these battles, there’s a sense that we care about these people because they’re human, not because we know them. And while there’s something interesting about that – that it doesn’t matter why you’re in the war, you deserve to be saved – it makes the film drier and colder than it could have been otherwise.
But the bigger issue to me is that three-part structure, which borrows another conceit from Inception – namely, that each part takes place over a different period of time, and only gradually does the film reveal the points at which they connect. It’s a showy gimmick, but one that never benefits the film; indeed, all we tend to think when we see those connections is about the film, not about the story. In other words, they end up taking you out of the film more than immersing you in it. It doesn’t help either that the film doesn’t make this time dilation particularly clear; even though each part is labeled “one week,” “one day,” or “one hour,” there’s no explanation of what that means, and I heard several people still not understanding the connection after the film ended. (To be fair, I don’t know that I would have gotten it worth having known about the idea before seeing it.) The result feels more like Nolan showing off than it does something for the benefit of the film, and the confusion and disorientation it brings detracts from the experience.
And yet, for all of those flaws – and they’re not insignificant ones – I still find myself recommending Dunkirk as a theatrical experience, and doubly so for 70mm. In some ways, it reminded me of my feelings about the film Avatar, a deeply flawed and simplistic film that I found myself realizing the flaws of throughout, and yet found myself incredibly swept up in as a theatrical experience. I don’t know that Dunkirk will ever play as well on a small screen as it does on the 70mm IMAX, or even just a good theater. But I can say that, even while I recognized its issues , I can’t deny the exhilaration, tension, and cumulative impact of the film as a experience, nor could I ever say that it’s not powerful, incredible viewing, taken all in all.