This is just one reviewer’s point of view. I don’t usually post a negative film review here on “Uncle Bardie’s Stories & Such”. And I don’t usually go out to the movie theater these days. But I thought that “Dunkirk” (2017) would be something to see on a big theater screen instead of a big tv screen. Boy, was I wrong.
For all the use of the big motion picture toys directors have to work with, it looks like Christopher Nolan failed at giving the audience what mattered most. He had a great story but he didn’t know how to tell it well. And it’s a darn shame too. Because what the British people did to rescue 400,000 of their soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940 was one of the great acts of the twentieth century.
Nolan has chosen not to give the viewer one character to care about. Instead we get three separate points of view: The Mole, The Sea and The Air and a time constraint. (My first question was what the heck is the time about. The soldiers on that beach have got to get the heck out of Dodge and in two seconds flat.) And these viewpoints are not always specific to a character. The first point of view is the soldiers on Dunkirk Beach. During these beach scenes, there are times it is hard to figure out who’s who.
The second point of view are the pilots in their Spitfires taking on the German Luftwaffe. There are times it is hard to know which pilot is which, who the German planes are and who the British are. The third of these viewpoints is the most individualistic of the three. It is Mr. Dawson taking his boat over from England to rescue the soldiers on Dunkirk. When his scene came up, I thought, “Now we’re getting somewhere.” But no. Just as I am beginning to figure out one viewpoint, Nolan gets cutesy and switches to another.
The first lesson in Storytelling 101 is give the viewer/reader a character to follow into the story. Especially a character we will want to follow. Nolan missed that lesson I guess.
In the “Harry Potters”, we are given Harry to follow. In “Lord of the Rings”, we meet Frodo. In “The Wizard of Oz”, we follow Dorothy. In “Gone With the Wind”, there’s Scarlett O’Hara. In “Saving Private Ryan”, we get Captain Miller, to care about. Spielberg throws me into the devastation of battle in a realistic way and I never doubt the danger.
There seems to have cropped up this tendency lately in filmmaking to make us play who the heck is this character and what’s she doing in this movie? It was a problem with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. It took fifteen minutes to figure out who the protagonist was and why I should care.
A second problem with “Dunkirk” was a lack of the sense of the danger the soldiers faced on that beach. The enemy remains anonymous. It would have increased the tension if I could have seen how close the Germans were. Even scenes of the Germans closing in. So much of the beach scenes have the British soldiers just standing around. Yes, there are a few German planes bombing from the sky. But not many and where are the German troops? Where is the German artillery? In “Dunkirk”, all I get is the muddle. Not once did I enough feel the threat.
Another issue is the lack of context. If Nolan had added an opening scene with the disaster that was about to happen, it would have helped. And the use of time to create suspense. “We have to get those boys off the beach or we’re goners. And we have to do it now.” Then use music and show us a clock ticking down to apocalypse.
Ultimately Nolan is providing the viewer an intellectual exercise instead of an emotional experience. In a day and an age when we have video games and movies like “John Wick” that are very realistic with the violence, why did Christopher Nolan think he had to save us from really caring about those guys on the beach?
“Dunkirk” isn’t a bad movie. It’s just not worth my getting out of the house and plopping down ten bucks at a movie theater. Next time, Mr. Nolan, I’ll wait for it to be on Netflix, then I’ll think about it.
Louis Jordan in “Gigi” said it better than I ever could: