With credits like Interstellar, Inception, The Prestige, Memento and The Dark Knight Trilogy to his name, Christopher Nolan has developed a reputation in Hollywood as a “go-to” director. However, he is equally recognized for his prowess as a writer and ability to create drama which resonates deeply with audiences. In the case of TDK trilogy, Nolan created a sense of dark realism which grounded the film by making the concept of a masked vigilante plausible. Given this knack for realistic story-telling, it is surprising that he had not yet ventured into a non-fictional period piece such as this before. But after watching the film, I understand why.
NOTE: THIS IS A HISTORICAL FILM. THEREFORE, THE OVERALL OUTCOME OF THE FILM IS EASILY RESEARCHABLE. HOWEVER, DIRECT SPOILERS WITH RESPECT TO THE SPECIFIC CHARACTERS AND INCIDENTS PORTRAYED IN THE FILM HAVE BEEN WITHHELD.
First, here is a quick history lesson:
Formally known as Operation DYNAMO, the “Battle of Dunkirk” occurred over the course of eight days (May 27, 1940 to June 4, 1940) in the coastal city of Dunkirk, France. Where the German “Blitzkrieg” had effectively surrounded and cut off Allied forces (History.com, 2017). This pivotal battle is noted as one of the key turning points in the war. For had it not been for the patriotism and bravery of the soldiers, airmen, and civilians who supported the Allied retreat, there would have been very little forces left to defend the British Isles from an all-out German invasion and/or support future Allied counter-offensives.
The film centers around the aforementioned evacuation and is told through the distinct perspectives of a British Spitfire pilot named Farrier (played by Tom Hardy), an English vessel captain named Mr. Dawson (played by Mark Rylance), and a fated duo of brothers in arms, Tommy (played by Fionn Whitehead) and an unnamed soldier (played by Damien Bonnard).
Each tale is told in Christopher Nolan’s typical “non-linear” format and intermittently intersects to provide the full picture of the events which transpired. Eventually the tales lead to a semi-climactic conclusion which fulfills the historical narrative and ends by making plain the intent and theme of the film. That is, the triumph of British patriotism and national pride.
In most cases, the visuals are very clear and capture the details of combat vividly. These are particularly crisp during dogfights which were likely a combination of CG and practical effects rather than full blown re-enactments. However, there are some instances within the cockpits when the picture become momentarily blurred. (Note: This may have been due to the theaters projection system but I cannot say for sure.) Yet, aside from those minor technical issues, the cinematography was expertly done.
The subdued color pallet is reminiscent of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and really conveys the somber feeling of those involved. The night scenes are clear enough to observe the details of the action and depictions of explosions along the coastline are a perfect contrast to the stillness of the sea. Also, to its credit, there isn’t an over-abundance of handheld shots (i.e., shaky cam). In fact, I can only recall one or two scenes in which this technique was employed and these were well executed. This was a breath of fresh air in an era where shaky cam has become an industry standard for war films and fight scenes.
Where employed, CG was flawless and the practical effects were extremely impressive. Specifically, when involving sinking ships, which occurred nearly every 10 minutes. Also, there are several scenes involving ground forces under direct fire during which explosions decimate their ranks. However, during such scenes, there isn’t much observable damage and/or injuries. Instead, it seems the creative team wanted the audience to fill in these gruesome blanks.
Musical Score and Sound:
As expected from Hans Zimmer, the musical score was strong. It served to emphasize the emotion of the scenes in which it was used. Sadly, the biggest downside was that it was barely incorporated at all. Ultimately, the lack of music does pair well with the “slow burn” of the film and it is clear the intended score of this film is ambient silence.
While, the seldom use of music left a void, this was filled by the sound of the sea and the sporadic sounds of war. Of these, the standouts were the aircraft and their cannons. Dog fights were made visceral and terrifying, particularly during shots from the cockpit of engaged Spitfires against attacking German heavy bombers. The images and sounds of return fire from these behemoths was enough to emphasize the sheer strength of will of British combat pilots.
Sadly, while the film was very well casted, I cannot say that any one actor stood out. In fact, while writing this review, I struggled to remember any of the characters names. However, if I had to select one character with whom I developed an interest in learning more of, it was Mr. Dawson, portrayed by Mark Rylance. His character was demonstrated to have an intriguing persona and a drive of patriotism unlike any other in the film. In fact, his character was the only one I actually cared about at all. Thus, highlighting my biggest problem with the film as a whole.
The non-linear format, which is normally strong for Nolan, missed its mark in this film. There is little to no contrast in scenes to help the audience differentiate between events occurring in the “present” and those that are alternate perspectives of a past event. In fact, I cannot count how many times I had to do a double take and analyze a scene to determine if it was a flashback or not. This became extremely distracting and really took me out of the moment.
For example: the rescue of the British soldier (played by Cillian Murphy) by Mr. Dawson and his son. Who is then shown shortly thereafter on a life boat denying passage to Tommy. Only to then be once again with Mr. Dawson, but only after a cut away to Farrier’s dog fight which occurred overhead during an altercation on Mr. Dawson’s boat. (Trust me, if this sounds confusing to you now, imagine trying to figure it out during the movie.)
The lack of music mentioned above is not an understatement; as a great deal of the film is devoid of any sounds outside of ambient noise and these are only sporadically interrupted by the occasional explosion or gun fire. This typically would not detract in a period drama, but there was also not much dialog either. Sadly, most of the film felt more like a window into the event rather than an emotional “representation” of the event. Specifically, because everything that happens seems utterly mundane compared to other WWII films.
While the events in the film may be historically accurate, there just isn’t enough time taken to make the audience care about the people involved. Because of this, the film becomes a slow, boring exposition on the patriotism and bravery of the British citizens who ventured across the channel because it was the right thing to do.
As a fan of Christopher Nolan’s work and a history buff, I was very excited to see this film. And while I understand the historical significance and wholehearted appreciate the sacrifices of the men and women of the Allied forces and there families, I must say this film was extremely underwhelming. But that’s not to say it was all bad.
The technical aspects of the film were fantastic and there are some intermittent moments in the film writing/story which do garner praise, such as the dog fights and the selfless depiction of British pilots who risked everything to do what they could against overwhelming odds. As well as, the portrayal of the British citizenry and their commitment to the defense of their country. But sadly, these bright spots were dragged down by the lack of character development and action. Thereby failing to elevate the film to the heights of others within the genre.
Rating: 3.25 Spitfires out of 5
Special thanks to AAFES and REEL-TIME cinemas (FE Warren AFB) for hosting an advanced screening of the film. As well as, a big thanks to Warner Bros. for continuing to support our military members and their families. These screenings are a welcomed treat to all of us and one we appreciate immensely.