Dunkirk (2017)
Dunkirk (2017)

Genre: War Running Time: 1 hr. 46 min.

Release Date: July 21st, 2017 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Christopher Nolan Actors: Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Barry Keoghan, Jack Lowden, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, James D’Arcy, Harry Styles




uring the Battle of France, the German army has surrounded a large number of Allied soldiers, forcing them into the coastal city of Dunkirk. Though constructed blockades provide protection from a ground assault, the 400,000 men stranded on the beaches face almost certain death from above by the Luftwaffe. When the decision is made to evacuate, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) lead the effort on the East Mole, the only area capable of docking British destroyers. As part of an emergency recruitment of civilian ships, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and his friend George (Barry Keoghan) take the Moonstone out to Dunkirk to aid in the rescue. While the hastily assembled fleet of more than 800 boats attempt to escort as many soldiers to safety as possible, the Royal Air Force must work to terminate the bombarding German planes.

There’s absolutely no setup for “Dunkirk”; the film opens with unnamed characters running from an undisclosed enemy, before a lone survivor stumbles upon a beach, where interminable lines of British and French soldiers wait, trapped by the water, with the possibility of rescue seemingly nonexistent. A date is not given, nor specific locations, nor times of the day (a few nicknames and timespans are briefly flashed onscreen, but their purpose isn’t clear until long after they’re displayed). In fact, all of the proceeding events could potentially take place in a postapocalyptic future. To some, it would be obvious that “Dunkirk” is based on historical happenings, but writer/director Christopher Nolan assumes that audiences will be moderately versed on the warring parties, the theaters of combat, and why the Americans are not involved. Perhaps as a side effect, this film will motivate moviegoers to read up on the facts leading to this particular component of WWII.

As is also common with Nolan, the timeline is hopelessly jumbled, as if to needlessly add complexity to compensate for other storytelling foibles. Had the sequences been shown chronologically, it would have made for a far more sensible – and efficient – narrative. One of those major shortcomings is with the rather sizable ensemble of characters, which receives absolutely no character development. When certain personas die or are in peril, it’s virtually meaningless, as viewers aren’t given an opportunity to care about any of them (when George – one of the few participants given a name – is injured, it’s difficult to worry about his outcome, thanks to the unveiling of such negligible information about him). Furthermore, the roles are split into three distinct groupings, whose endeavors only line up intermittently, forcing Nolan to repeat scenes (from varying viewpoints) over and over again.

If one can ignore the infuriating narrative structuring, there are plenty of technical achievements worth seeing. The overuse of bass notes is, on occasion, unbearable, but the the bullets and the bombs are genuinely frightening – particularly in a sequence involving troops holing up in the hull of an abandoned vessel, which just happens to be target practice for the opposition (this is one of the best of the nerve-wracking concepts). The music also aids the tension – annoyingly swelling during climaxes toward the conclusion, but generating effective stressfulness during flights across docks or when soldiers cower to avoid unguessable points of impact for explosions.

“One stretcher takes the space of seven standing men,” comments Bolton, foreshadowing the terrifying situation of selecting those who become survivors and those who become casualties. “Dunkirk” smartly recreates a chaotic, ear-piercing, shell-shocking tragedy during the onset of WWII, with a handful of set pieces and scenarios worthy of praise. It’s an exercise in suspense, as well as in crafting an authentic-looking (and sounding) wartime arena, complete with atmospheric details and the sense of tumultuous displacement. Panic and desperation are practically palpable. But it’s little more than a well-designed episode – a single piece of a much greater story. The problem here is that the focus is so precise, there’s not much of a plot to speak of. Despite strong imagery, no wordiness, moving artistry (it’s almost hallucinatory at times, a technique many modern war pictures tend to incorporate), and a taste for every type of combat (including aerial battles, submarine/boat warfare, and even skirmishes on the ground), the film simply can’t hold up on visuals alone. The ending is somewhat powerful, which is impressive for a movie with no beginning, but even that isn’t redeemable enough to make “Dunkirk” the epic war project Nolan undoubtedly hoped to fashion.

– The Massie Twins

  • 6/10