Despite having a very non-French sounding name, Dunkirk is located in the northernmost tip of France, near the border with Belgium. It’s right on the English Channel, and the southern edge of the United Kingdom just a short hop (or boat ride) to the west. And it’s where hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers found themselves surrounded by Nazi forces during the early months of World War 2. The Germans had stormed through Belgium and France, pushing the Allies back until they had nowhere else to go. The British wanted to evacuate their forces but didn’t want to weaken their ability to defend their homeland in the process. So they mobilized a fleet of civilian vessels to cross the channel and help bring the troops home.
Christopher Nolan’s latest film depicts this evacuation attempt. With a runtime of just around an hour and forty-five minutes, it’s his shortest movie since his debut feature, Following, but it still feels longer than it needs to be. It’s got a few shining moments, but they’re isolated patches adrift in a land, air, and sea of mediocrity. There were many times when Hans Zimmer’s clumsy score told my ears that there was supposed to be something really exciting going on, while my eyes told me the opposite. And my eyes were often disappointed because while I had high hopes for this 70mm screening (flawlessly projected by the expert Alamo Drafthouse staff), the visuals are pretty unimpressive. There’s really only one shot that really stands out in the film (with the camera just off the wing of Tom Hardy’s plane as we see it gliding along the coast), while everything else is surprisingly drab, full of browns and grays and other muted earthtones.
Nolan’s fondness for nonlinear storytelling, masterfully executed in so many of his other films, also contributes to the downfall of this one. While the intention is to allow us to see the same scenes from different perspectives, that’s only done on a handful of occasions, and it usually takes a while to identify something we’ve seen before. Meanwhile, it makes for some jarring transitions and uncertainty about exactly how things fit together. If it had been a more linear presentation, it would’ve been tighter and easier to follow.
It sounds like I really hated the film, which isn’t true. I went in with high expectations and was completely underwhelmed, but there are certainly some good parts. That includes just about everything with Tom Hardy in his Spitfire plane, and a good portion of the scenes with Mark Rylance in his boat crossing the channel (although the Barry Keoghan part of that storyline seems like an unnecessary distraction). It’s just that so much of the movie falls so far short of what I’d been hoping for, and what Nolan is capable of, that its unremarkability is made all the more prominent.