I do not know how I feel about Dunkirk. I’m going to try and sort out my feelings as I’m writing this post.
I say this because with the way critics are heaping praise and adulation on the film being Christopher Nolan’s “best movie yet”, I expected to be blown away. Or moved profoundly. Or feel very deeply. But I don’t.
First, a brief introduction to the film. It tells the true story of the evacuation of Dunkirk, where 400,000 British soldiers were stranded on a beach in France, cornered by the Axis powers and easy pickings for enemy fire from above. It is seen from three perspectives: land (a group of soldiers on the beach desperate to go home), air (two English fighter pilots playing air defense against the enemy planes bombing their troops), and sea (one civilian boat out of the many heeding the call of the Navy to sail to Dunkirk and help evacuate the soldiers).
There is little action, unless your idea of action is trying to get off sinking ships, not drowning, and dodging bullets while running away. Fairly lean dialogue. No huge battle scenes. It’s made of quiet moments interspersed with moments of ratcheting tension and suspense, but mostly quiet moments. It’s a story about being besieged, retreating and survival, and the movie reflects that quiet desperation. Even when fighter planes are shot down, they make practically no sound crashing into the sea when seen from afar. It’s a very unique war movie in that sense. It seems Christopher Nolan is making a documentary on the ground more than a tentpole movie — there doesn’t seem to be much dramatisation from the actual events.
Quiet desperation does not inspire grand feelings though. There were things which I felt great pity for (the ships in the water like sitting ducks for the enemy bombers, the futility of the early evacuation efforts), people who died whom I felt sorry for (especially one particular death which I thought made no sense), but while I understood the characters and felt anxious for them in moments of danger, I was looking at them detachedly.
Which is ironic, because the perspectives we get to see are very intimate. Christopher Nolan tells all three stories at the same time, switching points of view every so often, and grouping the scenes together by atmosphere. They don’t all tell the same story at the same time, but the tense moments in each story are placed together, so that group of scenes as a whole makes a suspenseful sequence. It is pretty effective, but also confusing to follow, until you begin to see halfway through the film how he is weaving all the narratives together. (It doesn’t help that I really couldn’t understand half of what they were saying due to their accents and me generally being half-deaf.)
The acting was subtle and nuanced. There’s no one that I can single out in the ensemble because they were all great. The many newcomers acquitted themselves well. None of the cast had attention-seeking performances — no one displayed any histrionics, unlike many Oscar contenders in the past that I can mention. They just displayed the stoicism of men who did what they had to do: whether it was survive, shoot down enemy planes even when running out of fuel, or go to the rescue of their fellow countrymen in their small leisure boat. (On a side note: the fighter pilot Collins — played by Jack Lowden — is really good looking. Harry Styles also looks great with non-pop star hair.)
It is the sort of movie that is rewarded during awards season — it’s a heavy topic, shot beautifully. You — meaning me — may not be able to understand or put into words how or why it is well-crafted as a film, but you can see it. It’s a movie you see and you’re like: “Ah, the filmmaker knows what he’s doing.”
But if you were to compare it to grittier movies like Hacksaw Ridge (which I didn’t watch), and Saving Private Ryan (which I did), those were gripping and intense, in contrast to Dunkirk’s occasionally meandering pace. When I watched Saving Private Ryan — in the middle of the night many years back, and I don’t know why I thought that was a good idea — I felt gutted and raw after watching it. The first 20 minutes of the battle scene on D-Day was so intense and the carnage was horrifying. After that, the film slowed down as the small group of men embarked on their journey to look for Private Ryan, but we learn more and grow to care for them, and so when many of them died on the journey and in the final battle, I was heartbroken that they would never go home. I didn’t feel the same things for Dunkirk.
Which is not to say I don’t like Dunkirk. I just really wanted to adore it as passionately as I did Inception — which is the movie I think is his best — but I’m not feeling it. At best, I appreciate it.