Review: The Hollow Ambition of 'Dunkirk'

Dunkirk is best explained by quantum mechanics. Seriously. Quantum mechanics states that light acts as both a wave and a particle depending on how you observe it. Depending on how you think it, Dunkirk is both a great movie and an unwatchable mess. It’s an adventurous, ambitious, experimental blockbuster, and a mind-numbingly conventional, mundane prestige vanity project by a big name director. It’s a chest-beating, jingoistic call for national pride and a subversion of militaristic hero worship that tends to accompany that pride. It’s both a particle and a wave, depending on how you look at it.

That’s one of the more ambitious metaphors I’ve written in a film review, and Dunkirk, in its way, is one of writer-director Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious films. And I’m pretty sure both of our reaches exceeded our grasps. That quantum mechanics metaphor makes Dunkirk sound like a much more complex, fascinating film than it actually is. And yet, it’s not devoid of interest and deserves your attention.

The story of Dunkirk is simple. It’s the evacuation of Dunkirk early in World War II. That’s it. No intrigue, no complex character motivations, no romantic subplot, all action. The characters are just English soldiers (who I guess have names?), trapped on a beach in France, trying to survive long enough to make it home. The bare bones nature of the plot is original, at least for Christopher Nolan, who’s known for making heady, structurally complex blockbusters. Of course, Nolan being the nerd he is, he can’t help himself from taking a straightforward story and turning it into a Rubix Cube. Following different soldiers and civilians during the evacuation, the film unfolds across land, sea and air, over the course of (here’s the kicker) a week, a day, and an hour respectively.

It’s a neat trick. It allows Nolan to cut to different perspectives of the event, gives some of the stories the inherent tension of a time crunch, and lets the audience have fun figuring out where the three timelines converge. But it also feels like a gimmick, or the obnoxious tic of an obsessive-compulsive filmmaker who simply refuses to make a film unless he’s got a puzzle he can solve to show off how smart he is. The device doesn’t make the film confusing really, it just doesn’t seem to truly justify itself within a WWII story.

That lack of justification extends to the whole movie. I cannot for the life of me figure out what drew Nolan to this project. The obvious answer is he just wanted to make a film that was an exercise in tension, putting us right there, in the middle of the action. The film's less a complex, dense exploration of war, than it is a war simulator. It’s not a movie about Dunkirk, it’s the Evacuation of Dunkirk VR Experience *TM. It’s a compelling idea on paper, but isn't shocking or engrossing enough to pull that idea off. And it also doesn’t jive with the Nolan I know and occasionally like.

Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, and Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk

Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, and Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk

See, he’s guy who likes his themes. Even if it’s only a superficial, lip-service exploration of those themes, Nolan likes to make films that you can write a high school English paper about or dissect in your freshman year Philosophy course. Even when they’re unsuccessful, his films at least try to be about something. Like I said, he’s a nerd. His movies have always appealed to the brain as much as the gut. They’re  intellectual and visceral. And the visceral is always a means to get the audience interested in the intellectual, not the end-all-be-all of the film. So I'm skeptical of the notion of Dunkirk as VR, a film that's all gut and no brain. Making a film that’s simply about the experience of the film in and of itself isn’t his M.O.

Or at least, it hasn’t been in the past. Maybe Nolan’s growing, exploring what he can do as a filmmaker, trying to figure out what his strengths and weaknesses are. Or maybe he’s just vying for some critical druthers and industry respect. Epic war films have historically resulted in street cred for many directors. And while his previous film, Interstellar felt like 2001: A Space Odyssey as directed by Spielberg, Dunkirk is like Saving Private Ryan filtered through a Kubrick-ian lens. Perhaps Dunkirk is just the latest attempt by Nolan to exalt himself next to these two titans and make another “Great, Important War Film *TM” that can stand alongside Ryan and Full Metal Jacket.

Regardless, it certainly doesn’t feel like Nolan has much to say about the events his films depict. Which is where Dunkirk becomes a very strange film, because there are moments that seem to suggest a movie with a lot on its mind, or at least, a film with a fresh take on the inhumanity of war and the nobility that comes with a sense of patriotic duty.

Early in the film, a fleet of German bombers attack the British troops rallied on the beach, their engines screaming - quite literally screaming - as they fly overhead. It’s the one truly spectacular moment in the film, and the shriek of the plane engines suggests, of all things, horror cinema. This moment made me realize how few, if any, war films are also true horror films, literalizing “the horrors of war.” This little element of sound design excited me, anticipating a new take on the genre.

Spoiler alert: I was let down. Later, a scene of troops evacuating a sinking ship, only to be crushed by the ship as it gets knocked back against the docks, likewise seemed to be on the precipice of a truly stomach churning depiction of the random tragedies that occur in combat. But the scene was strangely bloodless. In fact, the whole film is. It’s a war film that doesn’t really dwell on the carnage war produces. So much for that. Maybe it’s a patriotic rallying call for national pride, a “Support the Troops” pseudo-propoganda piece that makes conservatives weepy and liberals seethe?

Alas, such political intricacies are nowhere to be found here. Far from valorizing the troops, Nolan seems interested in treating them like ants, watching them squirm as he pulls their legs off or drowns their anthill. The soldiers in Dunkirk don't come off heroic. Actually, more often then not, they’re scared, selfish adolescents who feel no sense of duty, only the need to survive and get home. Not exactly the heroes we’re used to seeing in war films, and it’s a far more interesting track to take. And yet, Nolan becomes a sentimentalist by film’s end, and the country’s pride in the survivors becomes the film’s pride, music swelling and civilians cheering as the troops make their return to England. Nolan’s films have always been self-contradictory, but this is next-level cognitive dissonance.

In fact, if there’s one group who the film wants to valorize, it’s the people who save the troops on the beach; the civilian sailors who cross the ocean to bring the troops back to the Britain, and the fighter pilots who keep The Enemy at bay. But it becomes yet another failure to back up an interesting idea. At the key moment of the sailors’ arrival – again, Hans Zimmer’s score shouting at us to reach for the tissue box – the noble saviors approach not with cheers or smiles of accomplishment, but stone-faced seriousness, almost annoyed to see the troops they’ve come to rescue. 

It’s always been hard to decipher what Nolan thinks of the events of his films, what his philosophy and worldview is. But he seems so intent on keeping Dunkirk “apolitical” that it actually leads to a more immoral film than what he might’ve made otherwise. Again, he’s like a child torturing ants, and torturing them only for our entertainment.

So yes, my quantum mechanics metaphor was a bad one. Because Dunkirk isn’t both a particle and wave, it’s neither. No matter which angle you view it from, what school of thought you apply to it, what metric you measure it with, it’s not anything. Nothing but a big, loud spectacle that’s sadly content with dissipating from your mind the second you leave the theater.

There’s that famous quote from Hamlet about “sound and fury signifying nothing.” Is that too cliché a note to end on?