Dunkirk ★★

Christopher Nolan's philosophy of cinema has historically been that it is entertainment first and foremost but not without the capability of probing metaphysical and metaethical questions even as it accomplishes its primary goal for as broad an audience as possible. So what is he trying to accomplish by making a brutal war film in which the latter concern has been dropped entirely?

This is at last Nolan's go-for-broke attempt to affect, something he has been increasingly obsessed with trying to succeed in as of late, with results that vary from the ingenious (Inception) to the embarrassing (Interstellar). And in fact it is nothing else. There are no diatribes on human nature or time or anything philosophical whatsoever. Indeed it is Nolan's least talky film in a walk. It feels almost like an attempt to finally silence the tiny (and let's just say it, smarter) portion of critics that maintain he's an emotional and visual hack.

Nolan finally makes visible his affection for silent film, taking a simplified approach to character, interaction and their outgrowth of feeling. We are here asked to simply make contract with the humanity in this film for the very fact that it is, and identify with its torment. It is a true throwback in every sense but the technical. And that mentality may partially explain the film's downfall.

The film, being a major blockbuster, had an uphill battle to reaching the level of horror it aspires to and indeed would need to work as such a singleminded enterprise. Where it falters, and the director of The Prestige himself may later chuckle at the irony, is by his insatiable desire to Thrill. A strain of childlike glee is distinctly detectable within what is meant to be an exercise in The Great Empathy Machine's capacity to work without uniqueness and even, mostly, story. There's no twist of perversity to lend thorniness or a potential inquiry of cinematic sadism. Limited yet again by Nolan's lack of emotional imagination, it assesses its bad things as bad despite his fetishization of "tension". It's what Schindler's List would look like with a couple car chases.

The most egregious example of this tendency, Tom Hardy's portion of the film, serves no purpose but for this base action quota, besides perhaps to complete the spatial system of the battle. If Nolan suddenly is a great formalist this is warranted, and he does experiment with peripheral framing and a more elemental approach, but the film already stripped of pretense to meaning there's nothing to be gained besides the chance to witness some Spacially Coherent Editing. I guess that does elevate it above what it is in every way otherwise, a pointlessly completist thread in a Paul Greengrass film, a pejorative nothing else in the film is more than a few grades of cinematic savviness above.

One note and with a 110 minute runtime contributing to nothing but a pedigree the film desperately needs to buck, at the end of the day Dunkirk is too big for its britches. Nolan's unfailingly simple pleasures, in his films and in his cinephilia, seem to consider cinema more minor than he ever executes it. And with his humility firmly couched in an homage to works he, with uncharacteristically idealistic naivete, places in the same context as a high tech 2017 blockbuster without the chops or theory to actually create something humble, or compellingly ironic, there's simply far too little of interest in this.

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