The opening scene from Saving Private Ryan is the gold standard of cinematic depiction of World War II. Recreating the Omaha Beach landing in searing detail, Steven Spielberg brought to life one of the most harrowing and horrifying chapters in that war’s history. Christopher Nolan now attempts to do the same thing for the Battle of Dunkirk, a lesser-known—at least here in the US—chapter in World War II, when the German army backed Allied forces off the continent, forcing the British to evacuate hundreds of thousands of stranded soldiers at Dunkirk beach. Nolan’s film, Dunkirk, is being hailed as a masterpiece and a technical marvel, and it is, technically, very impressive. It’s also boring and doesn’t work even one-third as well as Spielberg’s Omaha Beach.
In every technical aspect, Dunkirk IS a marvel. The cinematography is great, the editing is sharp, Nolan’s direction is detailed and precise, the sound is OUTSTANDING—this will be a heavy hitter at the Oscars for sure. But as a narrative, Dunkirk doesn’t rise. You know what I remember about Spielberg’s Omaha Beach? Tom Hanks’ shaking hands, that guy looking for his arm, the red waves, the sheer scope and scale of the devastation and suffering. I saw that movie ONCE and that entire sequence is burned in my brain forever. Spielberg’s gaze is unrelenting in every decision calculated to elicit emotional response from the audience, and the result is one of the most memorable scenes in film.
What do I remember from Dunkirk, which I just saw the night before writing this review? It’s very blue, as in, the dominant color is blue. There’s a guy who really needs to take a sh*t, and I don’t think he ever got to. Technically it’s impressive but don’t ask me to name a character, or even one distinctive trait belonging to a character. One guy is Tom Hardy and another is Harry Styles, but beyond the actors portraying them, they’re blanks.
Nolan is often accused being a “cold” director, whose works can be chilly and emotionally removed. In the past, that has been an oversimplification, but in the case of Dunkirk, it’s absolutely true. As much as the movie is trying to recreate the chaos and desperation of hundreds of thousands of men—many little more than boys—trying to flee certain slaughter, there is no visceral sense of that desperation on screen.
Dunkirk is PG-13, so while it’s clear a lot of people are dying, those deaths are largely off-screen and muted, the true horror kept away from the viewer. So while you know, academically, things are bad, you don’t FEEL it. And that’s the main issue with Dunkirk—it evokes very little feeling. It’s technically flawless, with many professionals turning in Great Work, but while that is admirable, it’s not especially likeable. You can appreciate Dunkirk, but without that emotional response, you’re probably not going to remember it, in the long run.
Nolan’s decision not to make any one cast member stand out works in the sense that Dunkirk is a true ensemble piece, with no lead and no one performance overshadowing another. (Undoubtedly that’s why he stuck Tom Hardy in a cockpit, wearing an oxygen mask and rarely letting us see more than his eyes—to keep Hardy’s innate magnetism in check.) And Styles plays a selfish and un-brave character—not a coward, but definitely nobody’s hero—which guarantees his fans won’t be able to cheer for him during the movie, at least. (They definitely screamed when his name rolled in the credits.) Nolan is consciously working to keep Dunkirk from being about individuals, which is fine, except there’s nothing powering the narrative engine beyond “history lesson”.
It’s not that Dunkirk is bad. It’s too well made to be bad. It just doesn’t connect as anything other than a spectacle. Frankly, I wish Nolan had just made a really in-depth documentary, because Dunkirk’s legacy will be as a very expensive history lesson. For once, Nolan’s impulse toward technical wizardry got the better of him, and while he made a visually stunning movie, he also made an unengaging one.