Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” (2017): Style, Not Substance

A soldier on the beach from Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk (2017)

Is there a better example this year of a film carried along by pure technique than Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk?

Let’s get the goings-on out of the way, first. Luckily, there’s not that much to explain:

It is World War II. Allied forces have been effectively ousted from France by the Germans. The last of the French hold the Germans at bay, while the British await evacuation off the port town of Dunkirk in Northern France. Home is a Channel away, but as falling pamphlets early in the narrative indicate, the Germans surround them with Luftwaffe, U-boats, and infantry. The film is divided in three parts: Land (“The Mole”), Sea (“The Sea’) and Air (“The Air”), interconnected by event, but not necessarily by time. Typical of Christopher Nolan, the film’s conclusion contains a dovetailing of each section, tying the plot, and diegetic time, neatly together. We mainly follow a few officers, infantrymen, citizens on volunteer vessels, and RAF pilots, each in their respective section. Essentially, the officers fret over time and attack, the infantrymen die in hordes and attempt to escape, and the RAF pilots pick off attacking Luftwaffe until the citizen volunteers arrive, and the British ferry around 300,000 to safety across the Channel. The film ends with the surviving ground forces back in a celebratory Great Britain, one of the officers overseeing the evacuation of French troops, and one of the RAF aces captured by Nazis after his plane is downed.

And that’s the plot, really, save for that we follow select individuals along the way…and yet, do they matter all that much?

As I stated in the beginning, I argue that Dunkirk accomplishes most of its dramatic payoff with technique – Christopher Nolan’s ability to deftly weave plot arcs into a moderately complex, satisfying conclusion. It’s akin to getting a glimpse of a clock’s interior: a dedicated craftsman must be behind such a work; the intricacy, and the set motion of gears are admirable. To a degree.

Yes, although we do follow specific characters in the tripartite narrative, we aren’t given much reason to connect with them, apart from the obvious reason of them trying to escape/rescue troops. Their purpose in the narrative is to accomplish what history tells us. No personal motivations are offered, and we are not given penetrating insight into the characters’ psyches like in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, another World War II film, set in the Pacific Theater, and a much better one than Dunkirk.

The characters are not the point of the film so much as the Event (the Dunkirk evacuation) and time’s relativity are. This is along the lines of Nolan’s defense of the general anonymity of his characters – only a few are named, and even the ones we are attached to are virtual tabula rasas traveling from plot point to plot point. However, if the characters are less the focus than their plight, why even introduce “main characters” at all? They are just as disposable as the next drowning grunt. Parts like a group of soldiers undergoing a “it’s one of us, or all of us” scenario inside an abandoned trawler have been done before, and lose any major power by dint of the characters’ blankness. The audience being strung along their respective arcs seems more like an obligation than an artistic point. Nolan even fumbles with supporting characters, like Georgie, the young volunteer who boards a boat manned by a friend’s father. He reaches his moment when a shell-shocked soldier they rescue from a sinking boat (who makes a “later” appearance in the film during the Mole section; one of the first indications that time is being messed with) strikes at him in a panic, and he wounds his head – losing sight in the process. An interesting conundrum, as the character who joins in the effort to see British troops home won’t even be able to see their rescue occur, and, of course, must suffer a life of blindness in exchange for his heroism. But no, he is killed off promptly afterward, making a big fuss over nothing, and wasting time. Plus, are we supposed to feel something for him? There is NOTHING outstanding about ANY of these characters save for the fact that they participated in a historical event, and lived afterward. Whoopee. Does the film amount to not much more than a visualized textbook?

Soldiers staring in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk (2017)

In fact, if one were to view Dunkirk not as a drama, but as a quasi-documentary, its merits might rise. Its faithfulness to historical accuracy is commendable, although imperfect. Plus, the characters resemble props on a military enthusiast’s battlefield diorama – detailed, purposed, but ultimately hollow. If Nolan had hewn closer to the facts, and innovated the sense of time within a documentarian’s lens, it might prove to be a landmark work. Alas!

What of everything else? The action sequences are well planned, and the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema effective. Hans Zimmer’s score is hit and miss, and the acting is generally good (even Harry Styles is decent), albeit frustrating to watch talents like Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, and Mark Rylance limited to merely serviceable roles.

Nolan paints a three-pronged portrait of an event’s happening, and in truth, this portrait is sustained by such intricacy alone. Yet, the intricacy is surface-level, and any deeper insights into the occurrence or the lives that populate it are unfortunately absent. Even its ending muddles into cliché, with the film’s virtual protagonist (Fionn Whitehead) droning Winston Churchill’s iconic “We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches” speech on a train bound for home, as the main RAF pilot played by Hardy is tearfully stripped from his burning plane by the enemy, and the score soars into predictable heroics. Pretty typical for a war film, eh? Contrary to Matt Zoller Seitz’s comments, this film has its fair share of sentimentality.

Not that there aren’t any good scenes. Again, all in all, it’s a well-crafted experience. There’s an early shot of the assembled British forces on the beach sustaining a German bombing. During this scene, and up until this scene, the slaughter is handled matter-of-factly, as soldiers die in droves, quickly and without dramatics. Then, Nolan cuts to a distressed infantryman whirling camera-ward, crying something to the effect of “Where’s our bloody air support?” It’s an effective way to capture both the large-scale horror of war and the singular reaction to its ravages in a deft snapshot. Others exist, but they are mostly well-executed in a technical sense – beautiful staging here, a nice cut there. Time’s compression and elasticity, folks, is the name of the game, but there’s little to be found that hasn’t been seen before in other films…by Nolan himself, no less!

Dunkirk is a solid drama, and possibly an even better documentary (of a kind), if you’re willing to engage with such an interpretation. The fact that Nolan initially did not want to write a script, but simply envision the event as it occurred, is telling, and is good ground to argue for the position of Dunkirk as documentary. As it stands, a script was written, and dialogue (unintelligible in parts, by the way) given to cardboard cut-outs. Oh well.

I give Dunkirk a light recommendation, but it’s no major cinematic work. More like a technical exercise, of sorts, which may or may not satisfy an intelligent movie-goer. Better stuff’s been made in the past over similar subject matter, and it’s far from Christopher Nolan’s best – that would be, of course, the masterful Memento, another piece dealing with time’s uncertainty, but much better at exploring those consequences, and more importantly, how such is processed by a character we come to know and empathize with.

*Sigh*

Anyway, chums, onward we go.

*  *  *

Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” (2017), Warner Bros./Syncopy Inc. Prod. Emma Thomson, Christopher Nolan.

Recent work by Ezekiel Yu: John Sayles’s “Lone Star”: Racial Drama, Greek Tragedy, Western

If you enjoyed this piece, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast.