by Patrick Bromley
Reviewing new Christopher Nolan movies gets increasingly difficult with every new film he directs because they aren't so much movies as they are cultural events. This is a good thing, of course, because he primarily makes huge blockbuster studio movies that are original ideas, not based on existing properties (unless you count those three Batman movies with which he made his name among the fanboy community), with great care put into how said films are both constructed and exhibited. There is suddenly a lot of talk about film versus digital and sizes of both screens and film because everyone wants to see his movies in the best way possible, maybe because all of the press surrounding the release of his movies insist upon it. These are all good things for the health of the thing we all love.
Dunkirk is a strange movie. Nolan really wants to be Stanley Kubrick, which is a fair comparison in the way that his films are exacting in their construction and often accused of being cold or clinical. But Nolan lacks Kubrick's point of view -- not his cynicism, when I don't expect to carry over (Nolan is not a cynical director), but almost any point of view. Dunkirk is Big and Important because it is about War and Heroism, and all of these qualities coupled with the fact that it's directed by Christopher Nolan make me feel bad for not liking it more. It's incredibly well put-together, telling three stories that eventually converge into the same moment. On the ground are the hundreds of thousands of English and French soldiers, stranded at Dunkirk, sitting ducks against the (completely unseen) enemy, trying to survive the week until they are hopefully rescued. One soldier, played by Fionn Whitehead, keeps trying to get on a boat back to home only to have his every attempt thwarted. He makes some friends along the way, including one played the much-publicized Harry Styles, who is totally fine playing a part that more or less doesn't exist. On the sea, a private citizen father (Mark Rylance) and his son take out their boat as part of the massive organized rescue effort. In the air, a pilot (Tom Hardy) attempts to shoot down enemy planes and provide the boats enough time to evacuate Churchill's desired 30,000 men needed to return to England and continue the fight. I won't spoil actual history for you in case you don't already know how this turns out.
As much as I appreciate Nolan's willingness to tackle big, important ideas in his more recent films, I'm not sure how well-suited he is to do so from a writing standpoint. Yes, his movies have size and spectacle and epic sweep, and there are gorgeous moments in Dunkirk and a lot of tension, assisted in large measure by Hans Zimmer's unnerving score. But this is now Nolan's second consecutive movie to fumble the softer, more heartfelt content, once again suggesting that he's at his best when he's cerebral, not emotional. Dunkirk wants to go out of its way to avoid war movie cliches until it doesn't, at which point it embraces nearly all of them: survival, previously left to chance, is no longer random; good characters are rewarded (or given hero's deaths) while those who behaved selfishly or cruelly are punished. Dialogue becomes thudding and obvious. All of Nolan's attempts to tell the story of Dunkirk in ways that don't feel like a movie suddenly feel only like a movie, and it's strange to feel a movie resist convention only to fully embrace convention moments later.