Dunkirk SPOILER-FREE Review

Anyone who has read this site for a while knows how big of a fan of Christopher Nolan I am. His movies are some of my favorites of all time. He is a masterful director, and I am always interested whenever he has a new movie coming out. In the spirit of Dunkirk, I ranked all of Nolan's films in order of my personal preference, which you can check out here. So I have been looking forward to seeing Dunkirk for a long time, ever since it was first announced as Nolan's next film. I have been saying for a while that, if Nolan is to cement himself as one of the all-time great directors, he needs to venture out of the comic book/science fiction genre. That is where he is comfortable, and he has made excellent movies there. But if he is to join the Mount Rushmore of great directors, alongside people like Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg, then he needs to be able to do something different. And Dunkirk presented itself as a perfect opportunity for Nolan to show what he can do, by doing a war epic. With its release, I heard the word "masterpiece" thrown around a lot. At the very least it was the best of the year. So I went in with mammoth expectations, expecting a film that would absolutely floor me, and would ultimately rival some of Nolan's top films. But alas, I was disappointed. Dunkirk is a visual marvel, but its technical achievements cannot make up for its messy and unfinished story, or lack thereof. 

Intercut between three different stories, we follow the mission to save 400,000 men stranded on the beach of Dunkirk during World War II. 

I'll give everyone a fair warning: I will be talking about the movie's story structure in this review. I won't go into details about what happens in the film, nor will I give away what happens at the end, but I will be talking specifics about how Nolan structures the movie. I don't personally consider it a spoiler, but if you do, then don't read the rest of this review. That being said, let's get into the positives of this movie first. From a visual standpoint, it's one of the best of the year. Christopher Nolan knows how to direct elaborate action sequences. The use of practical effects in this film is staggering. You have real ships blowing up, real planes being used for the dog fights. The realism this movie brings is absolutely incredible. Hoyte Van Hoytema delivers some of the best cinematography I've seen all year, especially in regards to how he shoots the aerial fights. How he twists and contorts the camera so that you are experiencing the scene from the point of view of the pilot... it was just amazing. Hans Zimmer's score is also incredible. He is able to build fantastic tension just through his score. It does sound a lot like some of his other Nolan scores, for movies like Inception or The Dark Knight Trilogy, and I would have appreciated a little more differentiation, but what he gave us absolutely works for Dunkirk, so there's not really much to complain about. The amount of work that went into the production, to make sure everything worked flawlessly in order to pull off these elaborate sequences on screen, is crazy, and I cannot give the crew and Nolan enough props for it. 

That being said, I didn't really like the movie all that much. I know I'm in the minority about this. It has a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, so most people really liked the film. As I said before, I heard the word "masterpiece" thrown around a lot. This isn't me trying to be the guy who hates the movie everyone else loves. I praised all I have to praise about the film, but I do have genuine problems with the screenplay. This isn't me "not getting" what Nolan was going for. I'll explain it more in my review, but I completely understood what it was he was going for; I just didn't think it worked. And I honestly believe that a lot of people loved this movie simply because it was a Christopher Nolan movie, and because of its beautiful visuals. I think this allowed people to largely overlook some of the gargantuan problems this movie's narrative has. So I'm giving this preface to you just so you know that I'm coming at this as a Nolan fan who was not happy with Dunkirk, and that I'm not some internet troll trying to rile people up by saying I didn't like a movie most people love. 

In Dunkirk, we have three different storylines with different timetables being told simultaneously. We have the soldiers on the beach, which lasts a week. We have Mark Rylance's character on his boat, which lasts a day. We then have Tom Hardy in his plane, which lasts an hour. So not only do we have three different locations with three different sets of characters, but we also have three completely different timelines. And by cutting between all three of these, it is almost impossible to know exactly when something happens in one story in relation to the other two stories. Nolan has done things like this before, but he gives the audience apparent clues to help them put the pieces together. In Memento, the flashbacks are in black and white, to distinguish them from the scenes that take place in the present. He also starts each scene by repeating the last line of the previous scene, so we are able to figure out where that scene happens in relation to the rest of the movie. This may break the "realism" of the movie, but these are essential clues Nolan gives the audience so that we aren't completely lost in everything that happens. With Dunkirk, Nolan tries to twist the story in the fashion of a Memento, but he doesn't give us any of the clues necessary for us to figure it all out. He doesn't give us anything so that we understand when and where events are happening in relation to each other. And when he does give us clues, they are incredibly subtle, and aren't nearly as effective as they needed to be in order to tell the audience what they needed to know. Memento did it in a way where it wasn't abrupt or stopped the flow of the movie, but it rather effectively told the audience what they needed to know in order to understand the larger picture. With Dunkirk, Nolan throws everything on the table, and expects you to be able to piece it all together, when there's no real rational way for you to do so. I'll give an example, but I'll speak in the abstract as to not spoil anything. At one point in the movie, we see planes flying through the air, from Tom Hardy's perspective. A plane goes down in the water, nearby a boat. Fifteen to twenty minutes later, we're following Mark Rylance on his boat, when planes fly by and one crashes in the water near him. The movie is full of little connections and overlaps like this that, on paper, are genius. But the way this movie comes together ultimately does not stick the landing in making these connections apparent. 

It's one thing to have scenes happening in different locations, and maybe in different time periods. Cutting between the past and present isn't very confusing, as long as the audience is able to distinguish what's the past and what's the present. But when you have three timelines, happening at different time rates, it's nearly impossible to figure out what is going on. The ending of the film is a complete mess in this regard, but I won't go into details as to what actually happens. Maybe this would have worked better had we known the characters, and had grown attached to them. But Nolan tries something that, again, works on paper, but doesn't work on screen. He has a huge ensemble cast, without the film focusing on any one character in particular. We don't learn the backstories of any of these characters. I understand where he was coming from; in war, you don't know the story of the person fighting alongside you. You just have to make do with who and what you've got. But for a movie, that doesn't work. At least not for the way Nolan structures the film. I knew nothing about any of these people, and there was nothing visually to distinguish one from the other. As I described to a friend, Dunkirk is simply watching white people die for two hours. There were times that I was watching a scene, and I wouldn't realize until the scene was almost over that the people in it were the same people from a previous scene. The connections Nolan wants you to make are nearly impossible to make on your own. This falls into the same kind of trap that It Comes at Night did. Trey Edwards Shultz, the director of that film, gave the audience very little information, as he wanted you to come to your own conclusions as to what actually happened in the movie. But he gave us so little information that there was no tangible base for us to then speculate off of. With Dunkirk, Nolan wants you to put the pieces together yourself, in order to figure out how this movie ultimately comes together, but he doesn't give you enough visual clues to be able to do so. Instead, it becomes a giant mess on screen, and one that I could not get into. 

Like I said, the set pieces and effects were incredible. But they didn't mean much to me because I wasn't invested. Because I didn't know any of these characters, nor did I actually care about them, I wasn't watching a ship exploding, thinking "Oh, I hope that character makes it out alive!". I watched it and thought "Wow, that's a really cool effect." There was nothing for me to emotionally grab hold of, and there was no incentive for me to care. Therefore, I completely checked out of the movie five minutes into it. As a remedy, Nolan could've gotten me to care about the situation instead of the characters, but he gave me zero backstory as to what the battle at Dunkirk actually was. All we know is that 400,000 men are stranded on a beach. But why are they there? What is Dunkirk? Are there Germans on the beach too? There is all this background information missing, so I didn't really know nor care about the mission. It never became a visceral experience. Take Hacksaw Ridge for example. That movie takes time to set up and develop Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) as a character, so that, when the battle starts, you care about him. You want him to live. Anytime a bullet flies past him, you are on the edge of your seat wondering if he will survive. But because I didn't know a single character in Dunkirk, nor did I really know what the stakes were, the exploding ships and aerial dog fights were only nice effects to look at. The stakes in Hacksaw Ridge are Doss' morality, and the fight for his soul as to whether he'll kill or not kill. Nolan expects that the stakes in Dunkirk are the survival of these characters, but since they're all blank faces to me, I don't care if they live or die. He could have avoided that by getting me to care about the mission, but he doesn't give me any information about what exactly the mission is, so I never really felt the impact of it. 

I think this movie should have kept the three different stories, but they shouldn't have broken them up. Instead, have the three stories be three, forty minute acts, with a fifteen minute ending where they all converge. By breaking up the stories, you lose the momentum each scene builds, and any sense of urgency is lost. But by keeping the stories together, you can spend time with the characters, and come to care for them. I may not know this person's name, but if I spend forty minutes with him, I'll begin to feel compassion for him. I'll want him to live. And by keeping the stories together, the overlap will become a lot more apparent; it won't feel disjointed or confusing. Overall, Christopher Nolan pulls off incredible and elaborate action set pieces and effects that cannot go unappreciated. What he is able to do visually is outstanding. Hoyte Van Hoytema's cinematography is some of the best of the year, and Hans Zimmer's score is great. But Nolan fails when it comes to the screenplay. He Nolanizes a movie that didn't needed to be Nolanized. He tries to pull off a Memento or Inception level story, when it didn't need to be that elaborate. This comes from Nolan having too much creative control over the film. No one told him that these ideas, which all probably make complete sense in his head, don't work on screen. That you need some sort of visual clue to help us piece it all together. That cutting between timetables doesn't make sense when you watch it all as a whole. That simply following characters doesn't work to make us become emotionally attached to them. These are all ideas that work on paper, and probably work perfectly in Nolan's head, but it doesn't work on screen. If Nolan didn't have complete creative control, someone would have told him this doesn't work. But because he could do whatever he wanted, he wrote a script that needed some more reworking and needed a few more drafts done. And because this is a Christopher Nolan movie, and because the effects are so outstanding, I think a lot of people are majorly overlooking just how messy the story structure is. In the end, Dunkirk is one of Nolan's weakest films, and is a case study for what happens when a studio gives a director complete and unadulterated creative control. 


What do you think? Have you seen Dunkirk? Did you like the film? Leave your (spoiler-free) thoughts in the comments section below. 

Written by: Nate
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