Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Tom Hardy, James D'Arcy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy
Review by Mike DeAngelo:
As a huge fan of Christopher Nolan, I’m always looking forward to seeing whatever he releases. If he made a movie about mowing someone’s lawn, I’d see it and likely applaud the suspense he was able to glean from the situation. His perspective and adherence to technique while pushing the boundaries of film automatically make the feeling of seeing a movie uniquely his – something that’s becoming more and more rare in filmmaking these days.
With all of that said, I’m not much of a “war movie” guy. I’ve very much enjoyed some (Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Three Kings, etc), but there have been so many released that it’s hard to approach the subject from a new perspective. Yet, if anyone can make a war movie feel new it’s Christopher Nolan, and with Dunkirk, he creates a war movie that’s truly his – for better or worse.
As I said, Nolan is a master of film scope and technique. The star of Dunkirk isn’t his cast, it’s Christopher Nolan. He chooses to bypass character development and uses his skills as a filmmaker to completely manipulate your emotions on a deep & visceral level. Those who are drawn in by such techniques will be thrilled with Dunkirk, while those looking for a unique story or character development are in the wrong theater. Nolan wants to drop the audience into the battle of Dunkirk at a moment of deep tension and not let up until the film ends, which means no one’s sitting around relaxing and talking about their lives back home.
While the cast are all simply hollow human vessels that Nolan uses to manipulate his audience, everyone does an excellent job with what they’re given (yes, even Harry “One Direction” Styles). I was most impressed by Tom Hardy and his ability to convey the smallest bits of information and emotion with just his eyes, as he’s locked in a cockpit with an air mask over his face for just about the entire movie. Mark Rylance is also able to capture your empathy with a single look, which is a requirement in a movie like this. It doesn’t hurt that he’s playing opposite the severely underrated long time Nolan collaborator, Cillian Murphy, who also plays his small part to perfection. So, yeah…it’s hard to go wrong with a cast this damn good.
Even with the perfect technical execution and cast, I still left the theater a bit let down. Nolan’s choice to simply avoid much dialogue & character development in favor of technique is a bit of a double edged sword – while the experience feels more unique, you feel distanced from the events in the process. Nolan also chooses, as he often does, to tell the story non-linearly. In the other instances of him doing so (Memento, Inception, and, to an extent, Interstellar), there was a specific purpose for the manipulation of time. In this case, it feels like an unnecessary way to create a twist when there really was none.
In the end, I can see why Dunkirk has many people shouting its praises. It’s a technical wonder that is an extremely visceral experience on one level; however, I can’t say that it’s for everyone, as the choice to forego character in favor of craft & structure will not sit well with some. Personally, I wouldn’t rank it towards the top of my favorite Nolan movies. Yet, I would also say that he’s still yet to make a bad movie. If you’re going to see it, see it as it was meant to be seen – on the biggest screen possible - as the experience will only be hindered by home viewing.