Part-Time Review: Dunkirk


Dunkirk is too good a movie to give a poor grade to, but man are there some things about the film I really didn't like. As the critic Walter Chaw in his review put it, "The bits of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk that are good are so good. The bits of it that are bad are just awful. I'm a Nolan fan." I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.

I don't have any kind of grand take on the film, my thoughts are more scattered than usual so I'll just bullet point some of my favorite bits and some of my issue (WARNING: SPOILERS ahead)

  • Everything about the "air" story is excellent. It's well written, shot, and executed. I know it's vital to the way they wrote the film, but every time they cut back to the "Land" sequences, it was a huge let down for me.
  • There's a shot near the end where Hardy's plane is cruising over Dunkirk out of gas and the camera has the plane in a medium shot with the beach and city behind it. It's an absolutely sublime image, and one of the relatively few moments in the film where I felt allowed to just be in awe. One of my favorite moments of any film in the last several years.
  • The "sea" sequences are good. I like Rylance and appreciate him as the moral backbone, but his story did feel a bit obvious and telegraphed.


  • The sound in this film is incredibly oppressive. I'm hoping it's just the theater's mix (let me know if you felt it too), but the bass NEVER stopped, never let up. It felt like the intense "THRONG" that was so popular in the slo-mo moments of INCEPTION played throughout the entirety of the film. I get it, I know what they were going for, but it didn't work for me. Just made me feel nauseous and cheap for injecting "tension" in scenes that are typically run of the mill for films (I've seen enough bombings).
  • The "plug the holes" sequence in the bottom of the boat made me want to beat my head against the wall due to the characters acting so idiotically.That whole sequence in that beached boat often made no sense and was cut horribly IMO. There is a "audience can figure it out" sense to it, but it also just feels needlessly confusing and frustrating.
  • I feel bad for Branagh who spends the whole movie standing in the same place and just looking up at the sky for Spielberg reaction shots and hoping for boats.
  • I didn't care for the balance the film aims at between claustrophobia and comprehensiveness in telling the story of Dunkirk. I get making the Germans faceless to an extent, but with no idea about where they were on the perimeter, how long things were actually taking, the movie NEVER ends up feeling like 400,000 men evacuating. It felt like a couple thousand made it out on a fleet of 100 or so civilian boats with maybe 10 or so bombers strafing them every now and then.
  • The accidental death turned into a hero war story falls into a weird zone where the film neither seems to be presenting it as positive "kid was really a hero", neutral "you make up your mind", or negative "this is what we gotta do in war for propaganda" - I'm kinda left wondering what the film is saying with it.
  • I really disliked the Harry Styles casting. Not because he's a bad actor, not at all, but because it feels like horrible stunt casting (when it probably isn't). Styles isn't an actor, so when you see him, he sticks out, you constantly say, "Oh that's Harry Styles trying to blend in".
Conclusion: When I heard Nolan was doing a film about Dunkirk, my first reaction was confusion, "What is there to tell about that story that hasn't already been done?" The story is locked in location, features lots of waiting, and the drama is in transport, not really actual combat for the most part. I just didn't think there was much to do with it as a war film, beyond things that have already been done in other films.

I think my gut is proved right. Nolan is a master filmmaker so he crafts some incredible sequences and images here. There are some tense and moving moments as well as the war standards done pretty well: sacrifice, courage, and cowardice. In the end, It feels to me like Nolan recognizes there's not much to be said that hasn't already been said before (and better), o he turns to his craft to artificially heighten the experience. It ultimately hurts the film because it feels less like good storytelling and more like the insecure panic of a master creator trying to plead with the audience that he's made something important.