Dunkirk: Dr. Nolan, Clinician in Chief

*** (out of 4)

Thanks to films like Saving Private Ryan, the oft-used saying that “war is hell” tends to conjure up images of huge explosions, flying bullets, and injured soldiers writhing in trenches. In Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, however, the hell of war is something both far less flashy and far more insidious: constant apprehension. The movie recounts the story of the “miraculous” Dunkirk evacuation  from three perspectives: a soldier (Fionn Heyward) willing to do whatever it takes to board a ship home, a civilian (Mark Rylance) who sails to Dunkirk to pick up soldiers, and a couple of RAF fighters (Jack Lowden, Tom Hardy) chasing Nazi planes over the English Channel. In each storyline, there are indeed plenty of explosions and shoot-outs. Yet such flashes of action prove secondary to the large stretches of time said characters spend sitting, sailing, and flying in silence – quietly waiting for the attack they know is coming, but unsure of when it will happen or how to prepare. This, Nolan suggests, is the most debilitating aspect of war: a permanent, simmering sense of dread, almost like a perpetual state of unsatisfied suspense.

Many war movies play like secondary sources: they provide context on the war and their protagonists’ lives with a slight detachedness that makes you think you’re watching the cinematic adaptation of a biography. The best thing about Dunkirk, however, is that it’s very much a primary source – a loose, almost impressionistic portrayal of various individuals’ struggles to survive that prioritizes direct sensorial experience over exposition, acting, and dialogue. Few other movies have ever succeeded in depicting the day-to-day grind of war with such viscerality; the soldiers’ anxiety is always yours as well, and Nolan’s singular focus on the physical sensations of combat ensures that his work carries the pure, elemental power of a silent film. Complementing the experience, moreover, are Hans Zimmer’s pulsating soundtrack – it ably evokes the aforementioned feeling of constant, unrealized fear – and Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography, which haunts you with its desolate images of abandoned beaches and seemingly endless ocean. When next year’s Oscars roll around, expect Dunkirk to easily sweep all of the technical categories.

And yet, no matter how immersive and suspenseful Dunkirk gets, there’s something off about Nolan’s storytelling approach. For one, the way he jumps back and forth between storylines isn’t always effective. At its best moments, his cross-cutting creates a resonance between his characters that’s reminiscent of classics like D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance; you sometimes can’t tell which storyline a particular scene belongs to because it could easily belong to all three of them. But there are also plenty of times when Nolan’s abrupt editing style doesn’t appear to serve much of a purpose beyond leaving you utterly confused. Going through the three storylines in a more straightforward fashion certainly would have cut against the impressionistic atmosphere Nolan wanted to create – but if you find yourself puzzling over some of the details of the overall plot, that’s because Nolan could’ve done a better job making it coherent.

There’s still an even bigger issue with Dunkirk than its editing, however. Nolan, as he himself put it, wanted to tell a “universal story about…survival,” a story that through its anonymizing presentation could make you think that “that soldier could’ve been me.” But by eliminating all background context from the movie, Nolan ironically succeeds in putting distance between us and the characters; they become symbolic vehicles instead of actual human beings. In fairness, Nolan probably didn’t want to get bogged down in the clichés – do we really need another round of reminiscing about girls back home? – that plague the exposition of many other war movies. But watching Dunkirk nevertheless leaves you with the same unpleasant aftertaste you get after watching Nolan’s Memento, as though you were merely watching a scientist insert guinea pigs into a maze and collect observations on their futile attempts to escape.

No one can deny that Nolan is a master craftsman. Even though Dunkirk eschews the kind of mind-bending plot that made Nolan famous in movies like Inception, every frame of this movie still carries a remarkable precision and rigor that testify to Nolan’s thoughtfulness as a director. (Indeed, Nolan himself says that he wrote the script by following a very “precise mathematical structure.”) Yet that same precision and rigor also ensure that the movie often feels off-putting and uncompassionate. For all his pretense at direct immersion, Nolan cares about the people on screen only insofar as they provide quasi-philosophical insights into the human will to survive – and while such an approach can easily win your admiration, on an emotional level it leaves you unmoved, maybe even repulsed. Dunkirk, in short, is not the work of an artist. Rather, it’s the work of a clinician who eventually dehumanizes his characters just as much as the war he ostensibly condemns.


Dunkirk (2017)

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, James D’Arcy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

Running Time: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13, “for intense war experience and some language.”

Produced by: Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas

Written and Directed by: Christopher Nolan