**1/2 (out of 5)
July 21, 2017
Fionn Whitehead as TOMMY
Tom Glynn-Carney as PETER
Jack Lowden as COLLINS
Harry Styles as ALEX
Aneurin Barnard as GIBSON
James D’Arcy as COLONEL WINNANT
Barry Keoghan as GEORGE
Kenneth Branagh as COMMANDER BOLTON
Cillian Murphy as SHIVERING SOLDIER
Mark Rylance as MR. DAWSON
Tom Hardy as FARRIER
Studio: Warner Bros.
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
BY KEVIN CARR
I am not a big fan of directors responding to – or even acknowledging – their critics. After all, they have a job to do, and they should just do it. We critics have a job to do, so we should just do ours as well. Indeed, a director’s job is to make movies. Responding to your critics rarely leads to a mature and reasonable outcome.
For the most part, Christopher Nolan has avoided this trap that the best and worst directors (from Steven Spielberg to Michael Bay) have fallen into. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel that Nolan’s new film “Dunkirk” was a response to many of the criticisms that have shown up in the otherwise overwhelmingly great reviews of his work.
He has been accused of dealing too much in the fantastic. So he made a true-story war film. He has been accused of muddying up his dialogue with sound effects and music. So he made a movie with minimal dialogue, most of which is technical jargon. He has been accused of having extensive running times. So he made a movie under two hours. He has been accused of having no emotional core to his characters. So he made a movie with zero character development and almost non-existent character arcs.
In some ways, “Dunkirk” certainly is a masterpiece. If you’re a cinephile who adores features borne on actual celluloid, patronize your nearest 70mm exhibitor and is enamored with the technology behind practical filmmaking, there’s a lot to love about “Dunkirk.” While my press screening was on DCP, the imagery is striking and brilliantly composed. The use of practical effects are staggeringly, even to the point that the necessary digital optical effects are glaring and sometimes problematic.
In this sense, “Dunkirk” is a postcard that captures all of the power that the visual image has to offer. It looks great. It sounds great. It is often a wonder to behold.
However, all of this is executed at a price. And that price is a complete film.
Like many of Nolan’s films, there is no emotional core. More over, with this film specifically, there’s very little emotion at all. He requires the viewer to bring his or her own emotion and stubbornly refuses to offer any in return. The result is that if you’re not already drinking the Christopher Nolan Kool-Aid when you walk in, you’re left with a film populated by cardboard theater standees that blow in the wind.
In some ways, it feels like “Dunkirk” is a petulant push-back after “Interstellar.” Nolan’s previous film was drenched in forced emotion and Matthew McConaughey cry-face. Now, “Dunkirk” has turned off that emotional spigot to choke the humanity from this story. Additionally, by structuring the film in intermittent out-of-sequence action set-pieces, it leaves the nonexistent plot confusing and frustrating.
“Dunkirk” is a great last half of a movie, but alone is an emotionless vacuum. Had there been an actual cohesive film, offering context, character, story and history, it could have been one of the most powerful movie’s I’ve ever seen. However, Nolan is such a vacuum of emotional storytelling that he doesn’t even try. There is a single story arc that has any sense of humanity to it – most of which is due to a fantastic understated performance by Mark Rylance – but even then, it squanders any sort of compassion or ethos.
Imagine if James Cameron had started “Titanic” at the moment the ship hit the ice berg. Sure, the spectacle would still be there, but the ninety minutes of character development and audience investment would have been gone. In 1997, it was cool and devastating to watch the Titanic sink on the big screen, but the real heart of that ocean was the story behind it, including the minor snippets of stories as you watched the other figures in the movie deal with the disaster.
In the end, Nolan has made a film that feels like a bizarre mixture of Terrence Malick and Michael Bay. It’s all imagery and style, with plenty of flash. However, there’s nothing that breaks the fourth wall and engages the audience. Indeed, “Transformers: The Last Knight” had more emotional impact than this film does… and that movie was wretched.
I understand why Nolan made all of the choices he did – from capturing the confusion of war from the point of view of the soldier to the different perspectives of the approaches to the beach at Dunkirk. However, these were not good choices for anything more than a $100 million experimental film.