I had high hopes for Dunkirk, although I felt that the preview displayed a strange lack of scope. I thought that the film itself would address this, but I was startled to find that it does not. To my surprise and immense disappointment, Dunkirk does not even try to reproduce a believable, convincing scale of action. With today’s CGI effects, surely writer-director Christopher Nolan could have reproduced the hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers awaiting rescue on France’s shore. Instead, we are shown just a few thousand — about one percent of the actual number of men hoping to see home again. Maybe Nolan is trying for “representation” over grandeur, but if so he is making a serious mistake.
Nolan’s film tells three stories, bouncing back and forth between them to create a narrative of thousands of Allied soldiers waiting on the French beach, civilians steaming across the English Channel to recover them, and fighter pilots in the air to intercept the German bombers and fighters intent on inflicting as much death as possible on the immobile army. Each story is compelling in its own way, but only the civilian seamen crossing the Channel seems fully fleshed out. Even so, even this segment invites cliché by having Shivering Soldier (that’s how he is billed) Cillian Murphy throw a fit and injure a young man along to help the rescue effort. The other two segments desperately need greater character development and far more scope to their stories.
I believe Nolan is right to point to this moment in history, considered at the time to be England’s greatest military disaster, as the turning point of England’s war. The civilian effort to rescue over 300,000 troops was an amazing accomplishment, not just because it succeeded, but because it boosted national pride and made everyone feel as if they had helped. It’s just a shame that so little of this is actually in the movie. Instead we see Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) grimly watching his men being bombed, strolling back and forth on a pier hoping that his boats will not be torpedoed. Even the longest segment, focusing on two or three lads who escape the beach only to swim back to it later, fails to register their characters as individuals. Nolan’s point may be that they are, again, representative, but we don’t really care about people we don’t really know. Drama is created when we care about what happens.
Dunkirk has the best intentions in the world. I applaud the fact that it is shot on 70mm film stock rather than digitally. But its faults far outweigh its rewards. Hans Zimmer’s scale-ascendent score (and watch ticking) is annoying rather than edifying. Half the dialogue of the masked pilots (chiefly Tom Hardy) is inaudible. The film doesn’t really explain where the Air Force planes are (they were fighting the Germans inland, trying to keep them from attacking the beach) or why Churchill was withholding British ships for the rescue effort, or why the ships that did come in were constantly sunk by torpedoes and nothing was done about it. But for me its worst fault is its complete lack of scale. Where are the men? I would have accepted one hundred thousand. But I don’t believe there are five thousand men (or cardboard cutouts, which were used) on those beaches, which are largely vacant. Where are they? Poor filmmaking does not deserve to be praised, even if it is from the exalted Christopher Nolan. ☆ ☆. 29 July 2017.