‘Dunkirk’ Is a Booming, Bloodless Bore
War has never been this dull
This article contains spoilers for Dunkirk.
When I walked out of the theater after watching Dunkirk, I realized I couldn’t recall any of the characters’ names. Well, that’s not entirely fair. I did remember the name of the boy on the boat, but only because his name appeared in a newspaper just before the credits rolled. That paper tells its readers the boy — George — died a hero. He did not.
The critics are raving about Dunkirk, telling their readers that writer-director Christopher Nolan’s latest film is a masterpiece. It’s not. They’re wrong. I know I’m on the wrong side of the argument here, that most of War Is Boring’s readers will see Dunkirk and most will love it, but I’m prepared to die on this hill.
Dunkirk isn’t good. It’s a boring experiment in bombastic sound and hallucinogenic cinematography. It’s a movie people are destined to praise and then never watch again.
The Battle of Dunkirk and subsequent successful evacuation was one of the most important disasters of World War II. In May 1940, the German Blitzkrieg broke through the Ardennes, splitting the Allied armies. At the beaches of Dunkirk in Northern France, around 400,000 British and French soldiers waited to either move across the English Channel or perish at the hands of the Nazis.
The channel was shallow and the Royal Navy was limited in its ability to move into the waters and evacuate the troops. Churchill wanted 40,000 soldiers to come home. The people of Britain banded together, launched their own vessels and brought home more than 300,000 soldiers.
The British military left behind millions of dollars in equipment and lost around 68,000 troops during the evacuation. It was a military disaster, but one that became a miracle in the minds of the British people. Churchill delivered his famous “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech and the British public — having assisted in the rescue of hundreds of thousands of soldiers from death or capture — rallied behind the war effort.
It’s a great story that deserves a kick-ass movie. Nolan’s Dunkirk isn’t that movie. It’s a sanitized, disjointed depiction of the Miracle of Dunkirk. It’s a PG-13 snooze fest, war with the edges taken off and the music turned up to 11.
Nolan’s film follows no linear narrative and presents no interesting characters to connect with. Dunkirk divides the week of the evacuation into three separate narratives then weaves them together, freely jumping back and forth through time.
First is “The Mole,” which begins a week before the evacuation and follows what I’ll call Three Pretty Black-Haired Soldiers With No Names. “The Sea” is the strongest story. It follows the crew of a small pleasure craft leaving England to rescue soldiers across the channel on the final day of the evacuation. Finally comes “The Air,” the story of a Spitfire pilot portrayed by Tom Hardy in the final hour of the evacuation.
The three narratives intertwine and spill over each other, the tension in each story ratcheting up until they all collide together in a spectacular mess. It’s not hard to follow but it is very monotonous and slow.
The main source of emotion and tension in the film comes from the excellent sound design and terrifying score. Hans Zimmer’s music blares through the movie. It’s so loud that it often drowns out the sparse dialogue. It’s a good choice though, because Zimmer’s score is the only way the audience will know how to feel in any given scene.
For there is no emotional core to this film, no character to latch on to, and no one to root for. Actors deliver dialogue with all the enthusiasm of a stoic philosopher discussing salads. In “The Sea,” the fatherly captain of the small boat notices planes moving through the sky and points them out to George. “Spitfires, George,” he says. “Greatest planes ever built.”
The winged fighters soar over the sky and the man doesn’t turn his head. “You didn’t even look,” George says, who seems to know there’s something off about the movie he’s in. Also, is George this man’s son? His grandchild? Their relationship is never clear, but if he’s a blood relation, then it renders George’s stupid death late in the film and the distinct lack of reaction from everyone concerned that much more bizarre.
The other problem with Dunkirk is that it’s squeaky clean with no dirt and no grit. This is one of the most sanitary war films I’ve ever seen. I noticed it immediately when the movie began. It opens on one of the Pretty Black-Haired Soldiers and his fellow men rummaging through French houses, looking for cigarettes and water. They are beyond the front line, in the war zone, yet the buildings are pristine and untouched.
No bombed out rubble for Nolan, no, everything must be tidy and neat.
The Germans attack, the boys flee and some die. When their backs open up from bullet wounds, they fall to the cobbles in a puff of smoke. There’s no blood here and little in the rest of the film. Aside from a few medical cases, everyone is remarkably free of gore. Even a scene, late in the film, when bodies wash ashore is tinged by sanitation. The bodies are intact, floating in pristine water, as if living soldiers have decided to lie down and catch a nap in the waves.
Just look at these beautiful, unmarred soldiers awaiting evacuation.
These soldiers have been waiting around on a beach for a week. They’ve just lost a major battle. Yet their faces and uniforms and clean and tidy. Dunkirk was a filthy, bizarre mess, not an orderly evacuation.
Compare that scene — and the rest of the film — to this five-minute tracking shot from the 2007 romance Atonement.
That scene — nestled in a movie about star-crossed lovers — tells the story of Dunkirk in one powerful sweeping image. It was weird and chaotic. Blood and grime covered everything. Soldiers destroyed equipment, got drunk, fought and shot horses. A British Army officer shot Germans on the front line with a bow and arrow.
The Dunkirk evacuation was a defeat and a victory all in one.
Dunkirk is a boring trial. Nolan is a talented filmmaker who has made some great flicks, but this isn’t one of them. Tom Hardy careens through the sky in the dullest dogfight ever put to film, the ticking of a clock in the soundtrack the only source of tension. Cillian Murphy shivers and whines on a boat while British citizens present a stiff upper lip and sail through calm waters. Harry Styles wanders around the beach, not saying anything and not giving the audience a reason to care.
Who were these men? What were their names? What did they think of the war? We know Murphy is scared and wants to go home. We know Styles is pretty and looks much like the other black-haired boys he pals around with. We know Hardy is grim and determined. We know the British survive. We know the movie feels clever and new and interesting.
But, ultimately, there’s nothing here. Dunkirk is as devoid of life as the beaches after the evacuation.