kevinyang’s review published on Letterboxd:
Alright Letterboxd, we have some things to discuss. Bear with me.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Christopher Nolan is a very talented filmmaker. He and his brother have crafted several masterpieces in my eyes, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for his commitment to high(er) concept crowd pleasers. He gets a lot of shit, but his type of filmmaking is desperately needed in an age of mindless entertainment; how many other directors will garner such universal support from the studio, critics, film buffs, and casual moviegoers alike? Yeah, not many.
Now let’s talk about how Dunkirk is one of the blandest films he’s made, a film that is mediocre in most senses of the word and yet has been lavished with nonstop hyperbolic praise. I think Nolan’s pulled a quick one on everyone, hiring guys like Hoyte van Hoytema and Hans Zimmer to help conceal his deficiencies as a screenwriter. They’re certainly wonderful hires, as the former conjures up some absolutely stunning photography and the latter nicely incorporates suspenseful music into the incessant ticking noise in the background. Nolan himself also deserves a lot of credit for his confidence behind the camera and his eye for the crafting of a set piece, and the shots he and Hoytema capture when they take to the skies are impressive to behold.
Everything else is fine, bordering on bad. For one, the film consists of a grand total of zero interesting characters, a huge problem when we’re supposed to be invested in their situations and in their fates. If all it takes to get the audience invested is seeing a bunch of human beings in a terrible situation, then why do other films always spend time developing characters? Don’t get me wrong; a relative lack of character development and unnecessary exposition can be a positive thing sometimes, but it doesn’t work at all here. It’s like Nolan cloned a bunch of younger versions of himself and then threw them into the film without thinking, hoping that his technical achievements could overshadow the utter lack of effort put into these characters. “But that’s war!” you might say. “Everyone’s just a nameless object in the crowd, and Nolan is showing us that!” That’s certainly true of war, but what is cinema’s job if not to change that perspective? What is cinema’s job if not to introduce people we care about into the horrifying, identity-stripping nature of war in real life?
I hate when filmmakers are too loose with their portrayals of historical figures, but I also hate when no portrayal exists in the first place. I don’t care as much how meticulously crafted everything around the character is when the center of it all feels so empty. Soldiers struggling to reach safety after jumping ship, regular folk trying desperately to save the people fighting for their country, young men waiting nervously on the docks and on the beach and not knowing what may be coming…all of this should in theory feel harrowing and heroic and inspirational, but it’s not when presented by Nolan. Instead of soldiers struggling to reach safety, it’s a bunch of people periodically floundering around in the water. Instead of young men waiting nervously on the docks, it’s a bunch of extras sitting around. I realize I’m in the minority, but there is absolutely nothing in this film that gets me invested in what’s going on. There's no buildup, no unity. Things just occur. There is absolutely zero reason for his juggling of three timelines (convey chaos and the way time feels different in war? Better on paper than in execution). Nolan’s clinical detachment has worked before in his previous films, but it’s the downfall of this one.
Nolan’s screenplay tries to inject some life into the proceedings, but fails. The storyline involving Rylance, Murphy, and two others who are extremely difficult to tell apart from most other characters is nothing but needless, forced drama. The dialogue as a whole is absolutely atrocious, and that’s a shame because a minimalist approach to dialogue in a war film sounds like something fruitful. Let me lay out for you an annoying scene that plays out way too many times in this film: two British officers stand on a dock. The war is occurring around them. They realize the war is occurring. One of the British officers then opens his mouth and slowly spews out one of the themes of the film. Cue ominous or inspirational music and an intense gaze into the distance. Rinse and repeat. It’s not good. I am baffled as to how people can watch this lifeless display of a fascinating real life story and be moved to the point where they fill in the blanks that Nolan left. “Heroism” and “survival” are buzzwords that Nolan throws in there but never truly engages with, precisely because he thinks technical achievements can stand in for character.
This is a 2.5 star film, upgraded to 3 (*edit: back down to 2.5) because of how much I respect its craft and the sequences that bookend the film. The opening is an example of tension-building minimalism done right, and the ending features a beautiful cut before Nolan officially cuts to black. Aside from that, though, this is a tedious film to get through, a hollow exercise for a filmmaker who knows how to play with a camera but never gets out from behind that camera.