Saturday, July 22, 2017
Film Review: Dunkirk (2017)
Let's begin with the look of the film. This is the tidiest war film ever. The thousands of men on the beach at Dunkirk, who have spent the last few weeks in panicky flight from the Germans, are all wearing clean, well-fitted uniforms. Everyone is clean-shaven. The beach is pristine, with not a piece of debris in sight. The boats that ferry the soldiers off the beach are equally faultless. No wonder the British were pushed back to the sea so easily; they were battling an obsessive-compulsive cleaning disorder instead of the Germans. There have been many different kinds of war films, but never one that willfully ignores the fact that war is messy, dirty, bloody and unruly. I knew there was trouble ahead during the first scene in the film when we see a French street barricaded with sandbags. The barricade is so clean, so artfully arranged, it looks like the window display of a shop that sells designer sandbags--Sacs de Sable by Lagerfeld. It's true that the evacuation of Dunkirk took place in a relatively orderly fashion, but the neat queues of soldiers in this film belong on a parade ground, not a battlefield. Here's a picture of the real thing to illustrate my point:
And here's Nolan's version:
Normally I bemoan all the CGI in contemporary action films, but in this case I'll make an exception. At one point a character says that there are 400k soldiers on the beach. Really? I'm not sure that we see more than four thousand. Wasaga Beach on a Saturday in July looks busier than this. Nolan hates using CGI, but here it's hurt him. CGI could have filled the beach with men and debris, scrubbed out some modern-looking buildings along the beachfront, and filled the skies with more than a handful of warplanes. The evacuation of Dunkirk was a massive event in scope and scale, but Nolan has made it look like a minor skirmish.
CGI would not have helped with the script. The story follows the travails of about a dozen different Brits in three different plot lines. Most of them are unnamed, they have very little dialogue, and all of them are ciphers. It's difficult to invest emotion and attention in a story when the characters are just so many anonymous pawns. The script is clever in the way it jumps back and forth in time to bring all of the main characters together at the climax of the film, but the paths they take to get there are sometimes wonky. A trio of soldiers find a beached boat in the middle of nowhere (there was no middle of nowhere at Dunkirk, but never mind) and float in it out to sea just in time for the grand finale. It's a contrived bit of business and hardly represents the experience of the average soldier at Dunkirk. Even odder is a sequence on a rescue boat piloted by a civilian played by Mark Rylance. A sailor he pulls from the Channel (spoiler ahead!) accidentally knocks a teenage boy down the boat's steps. The boy bangs his head and dies. WTF is the point of this? This episode is so odd and pointless it ends up having no emotional impact.
Without getting all nerdy about the Second World War, I'll just say there are some real historical faux pas' on offer, but they pale in comparison to the other problems. Such as the soundtrack. I have the feeling Nolan saw the finished product, realized no one would be emotionally invested in the film, and tried to ramp up the energy and emotion by having a musical score that just won't shut up. The bombastic ear-bashing is continuous and tiresome. At times it sounds like the British are escaping an earthquake or volcano rather than Germans. And just in case we don't understand that time is running out for the British, the soundtrack handily includes a ticking clock for almost the entire length of the film. Really. I'm not making it up.
Dunkirk isn't a wretched film, but it's severely disappointing. A few early reviews I've read of it praise it for its technical achievements, which is, unfortunately, true. Nolan has done a good job as a technician, but a lousy job as an artist.