Dunkirk may be the most understated World War Two movie ever made. That doesn’t mean it’s anemic in depicting the horror of combat; quite the contrary. But in his effort to avoid the clichés and rah-rah patriotism of war movies past, writer-director Christopher Nolan has swung his pendulum to the other extreme. Dunkirk is based on one of the most remarkable episodes of the 20th century, when thousands of soldiers were evacuated from the French coastline by a flotilla of small sailing vessels. Nolan has chosen to tell this saga through a series of parallel incidents, focusing on individuals and downplaying the Big Picture. What’s missing, for me, is that macro-view of this extraordinary event.
I didn’t expect a conventional history lesson from Nolan, but given the enormity of the Dunkirk story I did anticipate at least an overview, not just a series of vignettes. What little exposition we get is voiced by Kenneth Branagh, as a Naval officer, but having him say how close they are to “home,” across the English Channel, isn’t the same as seeing it for ourselves—any more than having him sum up the operation at its conclusion is a worthy substitute for witnessing it first-hand.
There are no shortcomings in the visual presentation, which I saw on a giant IMAX screen. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hotema shot their epic tale on 65mm film and provide a vivid experience for the viewer, capturing the perspective of a desperate soldier on the ground, a determined pilot in the air, and an amateur navigator who is piloting his boat toward Dunkirk.
As Nolan revealed in Interstellar, he doesn’t care if some of his actors’ dialogue is unintelligible, and he’s up to his old tricks again. Spitfire pilot Tom Hardy may be speaking English into his face mask-radio but he was easier to understand as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.
Nolan is a skillful filmmaker, to be sure, but he remains cold and humorless. His actors, led by Branagh, Hardy, newcomer Fionn Whitehead, James D’Arcy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, and pop star Harry Styles, bring much-needed humanity to their roles, emphasizing the terrible toll that war exacts on men of all stripes. But I left Dunkirk feeling vaguely dissatisfied, with too many unanswered questions. If that means I’m swimming against the tide, so be it.