Dunkirk is a very good war film, but it's not quite Nolan's magnum opus

By Leigh Monson

   So here's the thing about Christopher Nolan: he is a very, very good director on a purely technical and viscerally intense level. His pet projects have always been about exploring classically masculine subjects—patriarchal connection to family, revenge, Batman—with a kind of intellectualism and craft that many of his modern ilk seem either incapable of or unwilling to, so it makes sense that he has developed a niche for himself as "the guy" whom high-minded critics and sophomoric dorm dudes come to a mutual understanding on as one of the best in the business. And in many ways, that assessment is correct, though Nolan has always had a narrative weakness when it comes to character study and emotional depth. This is all to say that while I quite liked his latest film, Dunkirk, I'm not as blown away by it as many of my critical brethren.
   Portraying the events of World War II's Battle of Dunkirk, Nolan structures his narrative around three interwoven stories that all take place over varying time tables. One follows English troops on the ground and at sea as they survive being surrounded by Axis powers, set over the course of a week; another follows the quest of a small ship captain (Mark Rylance) in an effort to rescue soldiers from the battlefield over the course of a day; the third follows an Air Force pilot (Tom Hardy) over the course of an hour as he fights to stay in the air after his fuel gauge is broken in a dogfight.
   The technical wizardry of this film is in watching these timelines eventually converge as time expands and contracts between them, allowing for instances of foreshadowing and allusion that a more conventionally-edited narrative wouldn't have afforded. These stories are all ripe grounds for spectacle on land, air, and sea, making for some of the most impressive cinematic war footage ever shot. These moments are accompanied by a fantastic Hans Zimmer score that incorporates the ticking of a clock as its central motif, emphasizing the different time scales while also playing with our sense of urgency. Almost all the effects are practical, and the sheer intensity of the moment-to-moment thrills is enough to justify a ticket purchase.
   But all of this engagement is lost somewhat when one stops to realize that not a single name said throughout the entirety of the film is memorable. Nolan is aiming for a wide-sweeping humanist message with Dunkirk, emphasizing the heroism in survival and the ways in which people help each other in times of severe stress, but his weaknesses in observing individual character undercut that message somewhat. There's something to be said in sticking to what one knows, but Nolan's usual cold sterility—no matter how gorgeously shot—does little to make us care for his characters as individuals rather than representations of everyman humanity. The theme hits home, but the lack of invested depth in the vessels for that theme makes for a somewhat weaker film.
   So, no, Dunkirk is not Christopher Nolan's magnum opus. It is a very technically and aesthetically impressive film that is absolutely worth a theatrical experience, but it sits comfortably with the same flaws as much of Nolan's other work. The time compression gimmick is really neat, but it's just that: a gimmick that doesn't enhance the narrative so much as allow for it to exist in the form that it does. There's nothing wrong with being a very good film, but sometimes that means falling just short of greatness.

4/5 stars