Dunkirk ★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I don't think this is necessarily an outright bad film, but what the fuck is the point here?

Is the point that war is hell? If so, this is obvious to everyone already. Films like Saving Private Ryan or We Were Soldiers depict the visual atrocity and gut-wrenching fear, pain, and confusion of soldiers much more viscerally and accurately. This is a bleached, PG-13 affair that seems content to shy away from the blood, the burning corpses, and the horrifically and slowly dying.

You can't have your cake and eat it too. Don't tell me that Dunkirk accomplishes this message by avoiding the depiction of these things. It seems quite a cowardly thing to me that Dunkirk asks said emotional response of us without having the stones to either show what's being hinted at or to take something.

Within the plain context of this film, there's no real sacrifice shown. Because death, or even unjust death, is not inherently sacrifice. I'm pretty sure no one in this film dies for anyone else. Of the few characters that are at least mildly more distinct (though still essentially nameless, homogeneous, personality-stripped husks), all of them make it to the end.

The only possible exception is Georgie, who's not at all a character outside of "dim-witted but apparently at least semi-noble teenager" and whose imminent misfortune is telegraphed by his name being trumpeted four or five times in a ten minute span.

Gee, there's barely any dialogue and even fewer references to individuals. I wonder if these people's insistence on using Georgie's name is a cheap way to add faux-characterization and individuality to him so that they can pretend they let something bad happen to a "character"? Bingo.

And even his death is some clumsy, lame accident manufactured to create a more tangible example of this "sacrifice" without having to actually kill anyone garnering ample screentime.

To be clear, I'm not inherently against the idea of forgoing characters, names, or identities. There's an argument to be made that the decision reflects war's uncaring nature and its non-discriminatory, chaotic reach. But if that was the aim, I think it backfired hard, because it only serves to make me wonder why we even have semi-characters then.

Likewise I've got nothing against inverted chronology. But ever since Pulp Fiction popularized it in the main, there have been instances of scripts and films opting to do so without having actual reasons behind it.

As has been detailed in numerous other reviews (which I've liked in case you would like to read them), the editing here completely undercuts both the thematic core and the second-to-second emotion and tension of the film. There is almost no rhyme or reason to it, and it's frankly a boring mess.

Things just happen. Often these things are directly and inexplicably preceded by Nolan indicating to us they're about to happen. Other times, things repeat, with slightly-different-but-totally-inessential-in-their-difference perspective.

Is the point to inform us historically? Nolan fails dramatically in this vein. Not only are the actual event, the circumstances leading to it, and the aftermath thereof conveyed to the viewer in bare-bones and shallow fashion, Dunkirk succumbs to the very same illogical and unsympathetic nationalism that helped start both world wars, as well as essentially re-writing history on multiple fronts with its unfortunate implications.

The near-closing line about staying behind for the French seems to indicate something other than reality: a reality in which the majority of British soldiers escaped as the (mostly French) forces covered them and the majority of French soldiers were then killed or captured. That Nolan chooses to begin with a title card for the sake of his exposition but forgoes them afterward despite his muddling is an odd tilt of the scales.

Then there's the almost total absence of non-white soldiers. Despite both African and Indian forces helping at Dunkirk, I can recall a grand total of two (2) non-white soldiers depicted, neither of whom utter lines, both of whom are among the same group of French soldiers.

I get that the majority were indeed white, but for a film cast in 2017 to feature such an incredibly small number of minority actors demonstrates that Nolan pretty much went out of his way to avoid them. Perhaps he only did this because he wanted to focus more on the "typical" native Englishman or something, but whatever the reasons, it gives the false impression that these men did not significantly contribute and fight and die alongside these others, which they certainly did.

Even outside of the misleading elements, this film is plainly not even moderately historically informative, so I'm forced to judge it mostly independent from its historical context.

Is the point to create an "atmosphere" of war that, unlike say ambient music or field music, is a purposely aggravating and intense wall of visual and auditory unrest? (Pretty sure I'm just describing harsh noise as a genre now that I say that.)

Perhaps, and this is the one I would be most willing to concede is somewhat successful, but even here, the prominence and over-reliance on Zimmer's somewhat over-rated and structurally self-imitative (See: 12 Years a Slave, Inception) score undermines the otherwise excellent sound design.

And if that is the idea, then why even have an ostensible plot or goal in the first place, contradicting the notion of vast, impenetrable constancy? Probably because that might be boring, but so is Dunkirk.

It's boring because the events of the 25-minute mark, the 45-minute mark, and the 65-minute mark are largely the same.

It's boring because it has no characters and the stand-ins for characters are largely the same.

It's boring because the "plot" (such as it is) is devoid of either mystery or depth.

It's boring because that lack of plot is mirrored by a lack of thematic depth.

It's boring because it contains practically no dialogue. What little dialogue exists is both damaging and cheesy.

I will give Nolan credit for his use of color: the blues reflective of the sky and sea are awash in the frame without overriding it.

Even with the fairly beautiful shots though, Nolan is repetitive, seemingly himself uninterested (as evidenced by his unwillingness to ever linger or focus), and rarely finds excellent composition.

There are still shots and moments with interesting angles and motion. And allowing the camera to be overtaken with the water or the darkness or both is immersive (though again, this has been done better in prior war films, most notably Saving Private Ryan). But again, this immersion is totally counter to and undercut by the effect of the editing, writing, and lack of characters or true "story."

Hearing anyone compare this to The Thin Red Line is puzzling to me, given the latter's focus on characters, dialogue, editing, and the contrast of beauty and horror in life and war. The Thin Red Line asks questions. The Thin Red Line seeks. The Thin Red Line does not shy away from exactly the things it talks about.

What is this film actually SAYING? What is it anyone thinks they're going to DISCOVER upon a second or third watch? What's actually HONEST here? What is being done here that hasn't been done before and better?

Dunkirk is all at once adventurous and dull, lifeless despite its straining, and self-defeating by way of shying from the conventional in all the wrong places and only where it does more harm than good.

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