Dunkirk

Dunkirk ★★★

I won't argue that Dunkirk is without powerful moments. The depictions of quick decision-making and constant threat, looming at all times, are likely realistic to the experience of being a soldier, and it's fascinating to see these kind of in-the-moment experiences on screen. There are a handful of moments in which characters are characters, and they take actions that paint them as individuals with personalites. The film's conclusion certainly espouses a particular belief of war and what it is to be a hero, but it all lacks original sentiment or even any great power. As a narrative work, Dunkirk is largely a film without identity. It's Christopher Nolan's vehicle for showing off his best direction of large-scale action, and that only gets me so far.

Despite Nolan's talents as a director, he continually struggles to emote on the screen. Sequences of great intensity feel unnerving and stressful, and we're meant to blankly identify with all the characters presented. Nolan's complete lack of characterization in his writing results in characters who are fully interchangeable, meaning no more to me than any of the others. When they are injured or killed, it's sad on a human level of basic sympathy, but I don't feel any kind of connection to them. Who are these men we saw killed? What did they believe? Did they have families? Did they get along with each other? Nolan doesn't even portray a sense of familiarity or intimacy among the soldiers. Nobody seems to feel anything in this movie outside scenes of panic, and as a viewer, that translates into a rather cold experience.

The cinematography is gorgeous, each frame alive and brushed with shades of blue, but I didn't find this to ever feel truly immersive due to the non-linearity of the narrative. It's a structure that serves no purpose here and only serves to complicate what should be a simple narrative. When it was initially presented, it intrigued me, particularly the idea of seeing events once already knowing the outcome and through different perspectives, but it doesn't lead to anything. Nolan doesn't utilize the format to create more conflict or paint a broader picture of the situation -- it's just a complication to the already present issues of emotional attachment to his narrative and characters. The entire film, slow paced as it is, almost reads as montage. We never spend enough time with one of the timelines/narrative focuses to truly becoming invested, detrimental for both emotional and dramatic purposes.

As most viewers have agreed, the highlight of Dunkirk, and its most effective tool in feeling immersive and fully realized, is in its soundscape. This film could read just as well in the dark, as you have a complete sense of the space and the situation from the complex sound work alone. I will be honest and admit that I didn't care for the constant ticking, as the already present score was effective enough in inducing anxiety. While the mix was impressive, seeing this in IMAX (which isn't essential, by the way) was at times overwhelming. This is easily the loudest movie I've ever seen, and at several points, I was actually pulled out of the filmic world because of the headache I could feel coming on. Nevertheless, I appreciated the commitment to fully building the world presented.

As a technical piece, Dunkirk is fantastic, but I struggle to accept it as anything other than a directors-reel. There are several sequences that really aren't necessary for any kind of great narrative or emotional purpose, and instead read as Nolan just showing us how cool he is. Yes, it is cool, but when watching a war film, I'm looking more for thematic content than aestheticized violence. The final sequence does take somewhat of a stance, but I just didn't feel any power or emotion backing it. There was a disconnect between the characters' speech and demeanor versus the inspirational score. It read as inauthentic, and the strange prioritizing of one particular character as a hero over all the other men who lost and put their lives at risk was off-putting. To pick a singular hero here is confusing and arbitrary, so to see that done made for a rather dissapointing conclusion. 

In its entirety, I thought Dunkirk was fine. I wanted more characterization, a tighter narrative without extraneous sequences of action, more successful emotional beats (everything with the teenage boy felt rushed and dissociate), and just an overall greater focus on the thematic. I see the appeal of this, and to a certain extent it worked for me, but I do not agree with the universal praise nor the assertions that this is a revolutionary cinematic experience. For a film that's relatively short and contains minimal dialogue, this was more exhausting than anything else.

Rating: 54/100

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