Dunkirk (2017) Review

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Director: Christopher Nolan

Writer: Christopher Nolan

Actors: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy


I am really conflicted about this film. Even as I am writing this sentence, I don't really know how this review will go or what score I will give this film. Nevertheless, I feel like I am obliged to write the review now since the film is still fresh in my mind. I still remember my experience watching this film in the theater, because it is unlike anything else I have gone through while watching a summer film. For example, when I went into The Grand Budapest Hotel, I knew what I was getting into. When going into Dunkirk, I did not know what to expect. I had not seen the trailers or read anything on the event that took place at Dunkirk. The only thing I knew was that it was directed by Christopher Nolan. So I went in expected a very complicated story structure that Nolan is known for. However, after 30 minutes of watching Dunkirk I realized that the film did not have a traditional story structure, and did not actually have any sort of character focus, the film focused on the audiovisual aspect of the war rather than the people. So, this decision by Nolan will obviously alienate a huge portion of people who wanted to watch a character driven story or certain people who do not care for the audiovisual side of cinema. Hopefully, I will try to dissect this film and look at it from every angle. 

First off I want to talk about the actual structure of the film because I feel like it is causing the most controversy. Most of the reviews I've seen online that have criticized Dunkirk have cited a lack of character development. Which really confused me when I read them. This film is made to not focus on the characters. It's not like Nolan did it by mistake, he made a conscious decision to try to make a modern war film which focuses on the audiovisual aspect of things. The film is supposed to be enjoyed by being engrossed in the action and suspense of war. Obviously this ties closely with the musical and sound design which I will go into later. However, the decision that Nolan made with this film is honestly a very brave one, especially in this day and age. It is very hard for certain people to enjoy this film, especially those who go to the cinema to relax, eat popcorn, and turn off their brains. Dunkirk requires the viewer to immerse themselves into the film and live what is shown on screen. Back to the actual story structure. As I said, the film does not follow a traditional story structure, as we do not get to see any character development and also we get minimal dialogue throughout the film. The decision honestly works in the films favor because the points of the film which lacked dialogue were the most interesting to me. I found myself glued to the screen as the action was taking place. Furthermore, Nolan's decision to take the film from three different perspective also worked really well. The fact that at the beginning we were given the time frames for each perspective, Land being 1 week, Sea being 1 day, and Air being 1 hour. This structure played well with the lack of character development as Nolan was able to continuously build up the suspense by switching between these three perspectives. I've heard some opinions that the way the perspectives were edited together was sloppy and did not really add to the suspense. However, I felt like they really played well together and Nolan was able to edit the scenes brilliantly together. However I do feel like the point where all three perspectives meet could have been done better. It was a bit confusing to know when in the timeline we actually were due to the constant switching between perspectives. However, after a couple of minutes it does clear up and we do get a sense of when in the event we actually are. All in all, I think it is a very interesting structure that Chris Nolan has used for a modern war film. In most war films, we usually just follow a group of characters as they are fighting through the war. With Dunkirk, we are following the war and not the characters. 

Moving along to something not so controversial which is the musical score and the sound design in general. I think it is safe to assume that anyone will agree that the sound quality and musical score in this film is excellent. A little bit of background on my personal tastes before moving forward though. To be completely honest, even though he is very influential, I am not the biggest fan of Hans Zimmer's music in film. I understand what he has done to the film industry and how he is actually changed a lot of how movies are scored nowadays. However, I never really got into his style. I enjoy musical scores from films like The Master, Come and See, The Mirror.. etc. So when I went to this film and started focusing on the musical score, I was blown away. The constant ticking noise along with the sharp and clear sounds of all the artillery created such an immersive experience. In my opinion, the effectiveness of this film is due first to the sound and then everything else. Whether it was gunshots, crashing ships, or airplane dogfights, the sound quality was incredible. Which is why I agree with Nolan's recent statements on theater versus streaming. Dunkirk is a film which needs to be watched in the theater. You will not be able to experience the full immersive feeling through a laptop or TV. Nolan is one of the few modern directors who actually creates films for the theater and not for regular TV experience. Other than that I don't know what else to say about the audio of this film. I do not have any negative thing to say about it. All I have to say is please go watch this film in the theater, even if you may not like the story aspect, you need to experience the sound of this film. 

Next I want to talk a bit about the cinematography of the film. This is where I am conflicted. I think that Dunkirk is Chris Nolan's best shot film by far. The shots on the beach especially were beautiful and reminded me a lot with the opening sequence of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. The aerial dog fights as well were really well shot and were one of the best plane combat scenes I've seen in any film. However, I feel like Nolan could have still done more with the visual aspect of the film. With Dunkirk relying heavily on the audiovisual experience, both parts need to be superb. We already established that the audio was incredible, unfortunately I felt like there needed to be more when it comes to the visuals. When I got out of the film I remember thinking if someone like Tarkovsky or PTA made Dunkirk it would have come out much prettier and easier on the eyes. This is not to say that it is not well shot, it is. Yet, I keep on having this sense that things could be done better, or I would have maybe preferred a different approach with certain perspectives. For example, as I said, the land and air perspectives were really well done, however the ships and the sea needed more to interest me when it comes to cinematography. This is coming after my disappointment with Interstellar where we were promised a visual experience similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but we didn't get anything close to that. So when I watched Dunkirk I was finally happy that Nolan was able to push his boundaries when it comes to camera work and cinematography. Yet, I still felt like more could be done, and when comparing with other films, I felt that even more. Nevertheless, I still enjoy the direction that Nolan is taking with Dunkirk and hopefully he will continue to improve and push himself in this aspect.

Finally I want to talk a bit about the actors in the film. Although we were not able to connect with the characters due to a clear and obvious lack of character development, I feel it is important to acknowledge. I think the actors did their roles justice with Dunkirk. The focus is clearly not on them and it shouldn't have been. Nolan wanted us to focus on the war itself from all of these perspectives. So when looking at the characters, we are merely looking at a vessel for further experiencing Nolan's vision of what Dunkirk was like. So I felt like all of the actors did a good job, especially Tom Hardy (even though we only say his eyes) and Mark Rylance. However, even though he wasn't bad, I don't understand the decision to cast Harry Styles into the film. There was this constant disconnect and I could never not imagine him as "the guy from One Direction" every time he popped on screen. As I explained, he wasn't bad, but the fact that he is this huge personality in real life and is not known for being in films just created this weird disconnect. I wished they had just cast any other actor and it would have been fine. Anyway, that is only a minor tidbit that I have with the film, and certainly did not ruin my overall experience with the film.

To come to a conclusion, Dunkirk was not what I expected from Chris Nolan. Some may argue that what he did was awful, yet I disagree. The focus on the audiovisual side rather than the complicated stories he is usually known for is a welcome change in my opinion. Film in its purest essence is audio plus video. If you are able to hone those two things then you can make wonders even without a cohesive script. That is what Nolan did with this film yet he still managed to tie in the audiovisuals with an interesting narrative of varying perspectives. The sound as I explained is top notch and one of Zimmer's finest works to date. The cinematography although much improved from his previous films still left me wanting more. All in all, Dunkirk is an extremely unique film when it comes to summer releases. Although it may not sit well with certain groups of people, I am glad that Nolan took this risk and did this project.