Sunday afternoon, my father, brother-in-law and I took our man-cave to the local theater to watch Christopher Nolan’s new film Dunkirk. Rotten Tomatoes reviews were off-the charts, Nolan’s pedigree was rock-solid, Hans Zimmer was in charge of the score, the story alone assured success. This was a slam dunk.
Less than two hours later, 2/3s of us walked out of the theater scratching our heads. What should have been a sure-fire epic left me feeling far from overwhelmed – like I’d just watched a decent episode of Masterpiece Theater.
The first sign of trouble comes with the movie’s length. It clocks in at less than two hours. A director that had no problem stretching his three Batman movies into sprawling, near three-hour behemoths depicts one of the epochal moments in the history of Western civilization with the brevity of a TV-movie-of-the-week.
He accomplishes this by narrowing the story down to an interweaving of three or four separate narrative threads, each one focusing on only a handful of people. What he gives up in character-quantity would ordinarily be a trade-off for character-development. But dialogue is so sparse in the film, one barely learns the first-name of the main players, let alone any backstory, or sense of identity whatsoever. If this is by design, then it’s a disappointing error in judgment, for it leaves the viewer struggling to find reasons to care for the characters, which in a drama is inexcusable, and in a war movie fatal.
Nolan also keeps the film short by narrowing the scope down. He’s showing us what’s called the Miracle Of Dunkirk, yet anyone unfamiliar with its history might call it the Meh Of Dunkirk by watching this movie. Nearly 340,000 troops were ferried across a bottleneck of sea, by a thousand ships, including a “Mosquito Armada” – as Winston Churchill called it – of hundreds of civilians in roughly 700 boats of all stripes and sizes. Hundreds of British and German airplanes fought for supremacy of the skies during the 10-day operation. Yet Nolan’s skyline and seascape is an astonishingly empty canvas.
Nolan does well to convey the agony of taking hours to load a ship with men, only to have it sunk while still in harbor. The best of his vignettes is of a civilian father and son, who with a friend take their small fishing boat across, encountering danger from British and German alike. Individual moments of attack or rescue are well-executed, but it’s not nearly sufficient to convey the intensity of what was truly happening (a far cry from what Stephen Spielberg was able to depict in his Normandy invasion opening of Saving Private Ryan.) When at last the “Mosquito Armada” arrives at Dunkirk, and the music swells, and the trapped soldiers cheer, one struggles to count more than twenty vessels that have arrived.
To mention the music points to other smaller disappointments. Zimmer’s score drones incessantly throughout with little variation. One looks for moments to breathe or pause, or God-forbid, smile, in the movie. We get it – war is hell. But a two-hour movie needn’t be.
Even at the very end when at last a group of British soldiers arrives safely home in England, we’re not sure how to respond, because of the very uneven way the film is edited. Night scenes intersplice with action in daylight, even though everything occurs in the same geographical space. We’re not sure what the timeline is. It feels as if the father and son should grab a cup of tea and turn right back around to rescue more. But instead a strange, forced exposition voiceover tells us the end result of the full evacuation. And that’s when we realize that the ride has come to an end.
Which is why it felt like a letdown. Directors give us war movies to inspire patriotism, or to urge remembrance, or to warn of its madness, or to warn of our madness. Perhaps that is the problem with this film.
Though a quote of Winston Churchill’s is shared in epilogue, one’s knowledge of World War II or the stakes involved, or the much larger canopy on which the war was fought is ignored. Nolan has left his movie and his message as murky and choppy as the English Channel.