I'm gonna start by saying I'm not a Nolan fanatic. I think he is a fantastic director, and he has made some of my favorite films of all time, but I don't hold him on a pedestal.
That being said, I did like Dunkirk. It's a really thrilling movie with some amazing shots and great realism. But I don't think it's anything more than it is. It doesn't seem to be a transcendent film. Which is totally ok with me. It sure kicks the crap out of a lot of other action thrillers.
The story has three separate lines: Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young soldier on the beach, makes a quick friend in Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and they try to get out of Dunkirk any way they can; Farrier (Tom Hardy), one of three fighter pilots sent to protect 400,000 men from enemy planes; and Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a civilian whom the British Navy sends to pick up all those soldiers. Well not just him. They send most if not all of the civilian sailors in Britain. Nolan weaves these lines together deftly, even doing his trademark time-fuckery, almost like it’s accidental. They all eventually meet in the climax in a way you could see coming, if you pay attention, but is still well done nonetheless.
Let me get my least favorite parts of this movie out of the way first, since I don’t wanna leave any bad tastes in anyone’s mouths. The audio in Dunkirk, while impressive and very real at times, is too loud for my tastes. The dog fights made me cover my ears whenever they started shooting at one another, not to mention the explosions and crashes from everywhere else in the film. I could have forgiven the loudness, though, since it gives a good feeling of being in the movie with the protagonists, if Nolan had just mixed the dialogue scenes better, because half the time you can’t understand what anyone says. And it’s not the diegetic explosions and gunshots that sometimes drown the speaking, it’s the music, which was a problem in Nolan’s last film Interstellar as well.
There are also problems with the writing in this movie. Nolan doesn’t spend enough time letting us get invested in these characters before he throws them into the fire. We only hear a single line from Tommy, the soldier, in the opening of the film and then we don’t get anything else for the next twenty minutes. A lot of things about his character you have to infer from his acting and while it’s good, it’s still not much, and I don’t think enough to make us care about him as a character. Farrier, the pilot, has a mask on most of the time, and his dialogue is heard through a radio so it’s pretty garbled. The only real character moments come from Mr. Dawson, his son, his son’s friend, and the soldier (Cillian Murphy) they find on an upturned boat in the ocean. These are some pretty great scenes though, which culminate in a very sad turn of events toward the end.
Now to get into the good stuff. Nolan’s style has always been dim, dreary and gritty. This is probably the best example of that. From minute one, the film hits the gas and rarely lets up. You know the tension is gonna ramp up when you hear the ticking, almost like the jaws theme. You also never see the “enemy”, except for their planes, making them an ever present fear in the back of you mind; horror directors take note (BOOM GOT ‘EM!). There were so many moments where I was cringing off my seat because shit just kept getting WORSE for the characters.
Nolan also uses editing to keep you guessing. About a third of the way into the film is when most notice that he's playing with your sense of time, since it cuts from night to day and back again. He also uses it to show you bits of information that haven't happened yet for some characters, but have happened for others. Like I said before, time-fuckery. But they do collide at the end, and it's a great ‘get up and cheer’ kind of moment.
Dunkirk is one of the most stressful movies this year, and it earns that with excellent film making and a solid cast, albeit at the expense of characters you can only invest in on a basic level. It's way better than its peers but doesn't do enough to make it transcend. I give it two bleeding ears out of two.