Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Tom Hardy, Harry Styles, Barry Keoghan, Jack Lowden, Kenneth Branagh, James D'Arcy, Will Attenborough and more
Grade: Three stars
"Dunkirk" feels less like a movie and more like a special "immersive experience" at some darkly intense historical theme park.
As an "immersive experience," it's a showstopper. Nolan did a breathtakingly good job dragging the audience right into the action, making us feel like we were caught in a sinking boat, running from enemy soldiers, or caught in a downed plane right along with the characters. If you've ever wanted some idea of what it feels like to have the world flip upside down and light on fire before you drown, this is the movie for you.
But if you're looking for a coherent storyline, or emotions other than crushing, numbing dread, you'll want to go elsewhere. "Dunkirk" is big on dramatic visuals and low on explanation, particularly when it comes to Nolan's choppy, out-of-sync timelines. It's also not great at making the audience feel things, despite the fact that both war movies and heroic rescue movies are usually reliable tearjerkers. I cry at both on a regular basis, but when it came to "Dunkirk" I got more choked up reading the Wikipedia article about the incident than I did watching it unfold before my eyes.
The movie relates the true story of hundreds of thousands of mostly British soldiers who were trapped on the beach in France during WWII. German planes kept shooting down the larger ships Britain sent to evacuate the soldiers, so civilian sailors ranging from fishermen to private boat owners braved the crossing to save them.
Mark Rylance and Tom Glynn-Carney, as a father and son coming over on one of these private boats, offer what is by far the movie's most engaging storyline. Nolan isn't great at putting emotion into his movies, relying on his actors to do it for him, and both Rylance and Glynn-Carney do a beautiful job communicating the fear and bravery of the civilians who chose to make the trip.
Nolan, however, is far more interested in the experiences the soldiers and pilots are having. He puts the camera right next to them, makes your eyes their eyes, and in the best moments it's absolutely staggering. Despite the potential for spectacle inherent in the IMAX cameras, Nolan's goal is always to replicate the experience for the audience. Whether or not you particularly wanted to have that experience for yourself, it takes some stellar cinematography and editing to achieve something so immersive.
As a movie, however, there's still so much missing. I had no trouble at all following "Inception," and yet here it took me half the movie to figure out exactly what Nolan was doing with the timeline in “Dunkirk.” While that hardly ruined the experience, it made it harder to find any kind of coherent storyline. I got a real sense of the endless fog of war, but not so much of an actual plot.
We also never bond to any of the soldiers enough to really care about them. The movie spends considerable time following a young soldier played by Fionn Whitehead, but we never even hear his name or anything about his life. We barely hear any of the soldier's names, and in fact during the first half of the movie they barely speak at all. Any friendships between them are ephemeral and are seemingly easily abandoned. There is absolutely nothing here to connect to emotionally.
As always, Nolan remains an interesting filmmaker, and with "Dunkirk" he's created an experience you won't soon forget. But if you were looking for a story, or characters to care about, you might want to look somewhere else.