Dunkirk and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros
Directed by Christopher Nolan
I never got around to seeing Interstellar despite having the blu ray somewhere around here, so my last Christopher Nolan film was The Dark Knight Rises (a film that I’m not particularly fond off) which came even longer ago than Green Lantern. We’ve had an entire DCCU build up in the dude’s wake since I’ve last seen one his movies, and he’s coming back to theaters with the most classic of prestige genres; the World War II epic! Hey, it worked for Spielberg! Twice in fact! Even if I wasn’t a huge fan of his last Batman movie (and from what I hear, most people were rather put off by Interstellar), I’m still glad to see this guy continue to make films, and while it’s a bit of cliché now for RESPECTABLE film makers to make a film about how much Nazis suck, I’m sure the guy is more than capable of putting his own spin on it that will make the movie a standout of the year! Does Nolan return with a decisive victory, or is this a tortuous war of attrition? Let’s find out!!
So the movie is about the Dunkirk Evacuation where a whole bunch of Allied soldiers were trying to escape from France as it was slowly being overtaken by the Nazis. Their only hope is to get a whole bunch of boats to France, load them all up, and ferry them across the English Channel to safety, but of course it’s not as easy as that considering how many submarines and airplanes the Nazis have in the area. Things get so desperate that Churchill eventually calls for English citizens with boats to become volunteers and try to make the dangerous trek across the Channel to pick up however many soldiers they can carry; hoping the Nazis will ignore them for being civilian ships. In the movie, we’ve got Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) on the beach with everyone else waiting for the boats, Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) as one of the boaters taking his yacht along with his son and a local boy (Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan) to help the war effort, and a Royal Air Force pilot (Tom Hardy) doing what he can to keep the skies clear despite being rather low on fuel. Will our heroes manage to make it out of this evacuation alive? Does Christopher Nolan manage to capture the magnitude of this historical event through his spectacular technical chops? If they needed a ride so badly, why didn’t they just call Uber!? Wait, do they have Uber for boats yet?
Am I seriously gonna be the odd one out here? Over ninety percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and I have to come out here and talk about how much I didn’t get this movie!? Sigh… look, it’s not a BAD movie and there were certainly extenuating circumstances during my screening that might have EXACERBATED my problems with it, but this movie just felt so… pointless! It’s pretty to look at, sure, but outside of Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy’s fantastic little side story (that could have been its own film), there’s just not enough meat on the bones here for this to be any more satisfying than a bajillion other spectacle driven films. It’s jaw dropping at points with how well Christopher Nolan is able to craft a scene and his use of water as an omnipresent source of terror and suspense is incredibly effective, but it somehow all blends together in the middle of the movie to the point that I just couldn’t quite follow what the hell was going on most of the time as it was just war scene after war scene after war scene with barely a semblance of character for the soldiers who are stuck in the middle of it. We all remember Full Metal Jacket for exactly three things; boot camp, me so horny, and the sniper. Does anyone really remember what ELSE happens in that movie? There was like a whole other movie after the boot camp and there were war scenes BEFORE we got to the big finale that I certainly have trouble remembering! I feel like this movie is a lot like that part of Full Metal Jacket; clearly the work of a master film maker but is somehow completely unmemorable.
Okay, so before I flush all my credibility down the drain by talking about how much I simply didn’t get this movie (I barely had any to begin with, but I want to hold onto it damn it!), I will admit that this was PROBABLY one of the more distracting movie going experiences I’ve had which I’m sure contributed to my confusion at the over flow and structure of the film. What can I say? The Alamo Drafthouse screwed up my salad (I’m a vegetarian, yet they got me the one with chicken in it!) and the whole situation distracted me a few times throughout. Now that said, when I DID sit there and try to pay extra attention to what was going on, I found that there just wasn’t all that much to really focus on and sink my teeth into outside of the Mark Rylance scenes. Oh I remember EXACTLY what happened there, despite my meat filled bowl of kale, but everything else just kind of blurred together and became one giant miasma of period violence and impressively filmed carnage. It’s actually kind of impressive just how much this movie is pure spectacle and forgoes any semblance of a three act structure in the non-Mark Rylance parts, but then I would hardly call that much of a movie. Actually, let me make this very clear. I honestly can’t think of a single issue I have with the Mark Rylance scenes in the movie (MAYBE it could have used a tighter ending, but whatever) so whatever I’m about to spout forth from my word hole and put on this page, just know that none of it is in relation to what he’s doing and the third or so of the movie that focuses on that.
We good? Okay, so there is something to be said about this movie being an EXPERIENCE rather than a traditional movie considering how well the spectacle of it all is and how it ties back to an actual historical event which gives at least a SEMBLANCE of context for what we’re seeing. I may not get to know hardly anyone in this movie, but I know they’re getting bombed by Nazis which at least clearly delineates what exactly the troops are up against and why. That said, if Nolan wanted to do THAT… well we’ve got VR now so he could have just thrown his considerable weight behind one of those projects. Look back at Saving Private Ryan which opens with the Normandy Landings (D Day) and provides that same horrifying rush of carnage, despair, and heroism that everyone tried to copy after that film came out. Here’s the thing though. One, I could discern a complete narrative within that battle (Tom Hanks pushing up the coast and getting his men behind the guns) and two, that was just the opening scene! We’ve got a damn good movie AFTER the amazing action where we get to know all the characters that are going after Private Ryan so that at the END of the movie when they double down on another jaw dropping battle, we understand who’s fighting, what’s at stake, and can ACTUALLY feel something when someone is killed. Maybe other people who watched this could get a sense of the guy we’re mostly following in those scenes (his name is Tommy according to IMDb, though I couldn’t tell you if they said his name in the movie itself) but I just couldn’t get into it enough to really care what happened to him or anyone else outside of the historical context which this movie leans on way too much in place of writing actual character arcs.
Is that a bad thing though? Am I being unfair to judge this movie by MY standards (i.e. having a story) rather than by the standards it’s setting for itself (i.e. spectacle and top notch film making chops)? Eh… only in the sense that the action would have been BETTER if I cared what was happening, but the action itself works phenomenally well even if the rest of the movie fails to give it a concrete point of engagement. It might have helped if the Mark Rylance part of the movie could have had a more solid connection to the rest of the action because THAT’S where all the fantastic characterization and interesting story arcs are in this movie. Hey, I’m still pissed that he got the Best Supporting Actor award over Stallone, but there’s no denying that this guy is one of our best working actors and proves it once again here. There’s a lot of interesting ideas going on here about patriotism and doing the right thing in the face of near certain annihilation that only gets more messy and complicated when they find a Cillian Murphy who’s a solider that already DID the whole FIGHT FOR YOUR COUNTRY AND BE A HERO shtick and wants nothing more to do with it. For a movie that’s so content to simply wow you with spectacle and tug at your heartstrings purely through its setting, it’s a surprisingly nuanced and occasionally gut wrenching little story that managed to have just as much impact as the fiery explosions and countless dead soldiers that pepper the rest of the film. Also, if this movie has one more really positive point, it’s the solid ending that has the right mix of cathartic and bittersweet (especially for Tom Hardy’s character who’s more or less the BIG hero of the movie) that you’d want from a movie about this kind of historical event. Sure, you still don’t really CARE about most of the people as characters, but it’s the one moment where the REAL LIFE STORY nature of it manages to make up for the overall weak narrative (excluding Mark Rylance of course).
So with all that said… do I recommend the movie? Umm… Okay, I’m gonna go with a tentative YES. I’m still a bit unsure if my inability to grasp what was going on or why I should care about it outside of the historical setting was due to how distracted I was at the theater (I GOT A VEGGIE BURGER WITH IT! HOW DO YOU NOT ONLY MISREAD MY SALAD ORDER BUT MISREAD AS ONE WITH MEAT IN IT!?), and the third or so of it with Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy is SO good that it’s worth seeing just for that. Plus, if you REALLY want to see well shot scenes of WAR IS HELL action, the big screen is where you’d want to do it. Now whether or not this movie is EXTREMELY dull if you have nothing to distract yourself with like I did is another question all together, but I can say that I didn’t really get bored with any of it even when I wasn’t all that engaged. Now if they had thrown Wonder Woman in there, then MAYBE I could have found something to connect with! Come on Warner Bros! You KNOW you wanted to do it!!