Run Time: 106 Mins
What To Expect: New ground broken in WW2 movie realism, but at a (PG-13) price
I haven’t seen a good Christopher Nolan movie since Insomnia. In fact, that was the only good Christopher Nolan movie I’d seen (I haven’t seen Memento) until this weekend. His movies are suffocating chores of poorly directed Jonathan Nolan-written pseudo-intellectual exposition (sorry, I couldn’t even finish Westworld), dressed up as masterpieces. And when I say poorly directed, I mean it; watch Jim Emerson destroy the myth of Nolan’s previous ‘works of art’.
Well, things have changed here because Nolan is working at his best, even if we’re sort of short changed with the rating.
You should know the story behind this now. The Germans invaded France in WW2 using Blitzkrieg tactics. That is, fast, deep penetrations using combined arms to bypass old WW1 ideas of static defense. And although it wasn’t the first time it was seen (it was actually first used by the Soviets against the Japanese at Khalkhin Gol), it stunned the French and British there, with disorientation being the biggest problem as opposed to the old myth of cowardice. And so, faced with imminent collapse the BEF pulled somewhat of a reverse D-Day.
The elephant in the room for many here is going to be the rating. It is PG-13, and it should not be. Unless I’m mistaken, the first use of hollow tipped ammunition in combat (at least in WW2) was between the British and Germans in Northern France, early in the war. In some instances, surrounded British troops fired on Germans with expanding bullets. In return, the Germans massacred them… I’m pretty sure that both acts of bloodthirstiness are against international law. What does a hollow point bullet do to a head, anyway? Don’t know, because there is no blood in this movie. That’s bad, it lets it down. It (the PG-13 ethos) also draws in restless brats keeping an eye out for Harry Styles to further hurt the experience.
But I’m giving this movie a positive review.
Because Dunkirk breaks new ground in atmosphere and realism for a WW2 movie. There’s a sober, hungover type of tension at play here that works extremely well and hasn’t really been seen in a WW2 movie of this scale before (but you can see it in HBO’s When Trumpet’s Fade). I’d feared that Nolanite overwrought exposition would plague this movie, but finally, the man has mastered the art of the unsaid, and balancing it with visual narrative to offer an engrossing experience. You will note, that Christopher Nolan wrote this movie himself, without Jonathan Nolan.
One of the things that contributes to the hazy, almost intangible realism is that there’s a lot less shouting and screaming even in moments of panic. I never thought about it before, but that’s probably what it was like… it makes previous movies with slow-mo screaming as the bombs come in almost seem cartoonish… the film seems to convey a near continuous state of shock and a lot of it feels like an outright time warp back to 1940’s France. There’s also minimal sentimentality; thinking back, while Saving Private Ryan certainly had the edge in gore, there was a lot of gushing that hurt it and I don’t think I realised that until seeing this one. From now on, I think I’ll skip Matt Damon’s excruciating monologue.
Nolan also finally tones back the atrocious editing and shaking camerawork. I could see what was happening during kinetic scenes, this is another thing I wasn’t expecting — a soldier fleeing on foot through the streets for example is not the jarring experience it would’ve been in a previous Nolan effort. And Hans Zimmer’s score is also highly effect, you know a musician is good at his job when the music creeps up on you, expertly, but doesn’t cross the line beyond complimenting the current situation.
Hell, the sound overall is fucking amazing. The Merlin engines of the Spitfires sound more realistic in a way that I can’t really articulate, and the chatter in the cockpit from the (restrained) Tom Hardy is, again, sober, stoic and authentic.
Anyway, this will probably be a divisive movie. Dunkirk is a movie that should’ve had blood washing up the shores, like D-Day in SPR. For those obsequious fanboys who’ll try to defend it, remember that this is probably a disservice to surviving veterans. For that reason, a movie I would probably have given a 10/10 gets a weak 8 from me.