Dunkirk is exactly the film Christopher Nolan needed to make at this point in his career. I’m not referring to whatever artistic compulsion the writer-director may have felt in his pulsing, creative soul. Instead, I mean this is the sort of film we as moviegoers — by which I of course mean this is the sort of film that that I as a moviegoer — needed to see. It demonstrates Nolan may yet be able to escape the self-set trap of films that are so confined by ever-tightening overt structural and thematic cleverness that they blink away into imploded nothingness.
Even I typed it, I realize the above primarily reveals how much more I’ve soured on Interstellar since my original review (and I didn’t exactly love it then), but I think a basic truth of Nolan is present there, too. Just as his reputation for elegantly transformative narratives have given the helmer access to robust budgets, its helped box him in. His last couple of features have been weighed down with ambition, as if he wasn’t allowed to simply make a movie. He needed to preside over a cinematic event. The resulting works felt corresponding smothered.
Dunkirk isn’t straightforward, either. In building a narrative around the evacuation of Allied forces from the French coast early in World War II, Nolan (who is also the sole credited screenwriter) opts for a trio of storylines operating on different timelines with subtle and slowly emerging overlaps. What could be simple trickery — a way to impose modern craftiness on a well-worn genre — is instead lovely and useful, providing a different way for the audience to make sense of the terrible gravity and tragedy of men at war. In engaging a different part of the intellect, Nolan shakes the viewer alert to the aching travails of the soldiers and flyboys onscreen, even as he largely eschews the emotional sparklers of painstakingly shared backstories. These men don’t merit empathy because of the loved ones back home or personal aspirations to open shops after the war. They are people in a terrible situation, and that is enough.
Even as Dunkirk is freed of fussiness, it is bursting with — and emboldened by — breathtaking craft. Nolan has reasonably courted comparisons to Steven Spielberg previously, but he moves yet closer to claiming that esteemed predecessor’s mantle of master of visual narrative. Especially in the earliest scenes, Nolan is striving for a minimalist aesthetic, at least in terms of telling his story as much as possible with images rather than characters snapping off exposition at each other. He succeeds marvelously, so much so that I sometimes found myself wishing he had pared it down even more, building the film with the economical dialogue of a silent feature. Filling that gap, Hans Zimmer turns in the most compelling score of his career, heightening the already considerable tension with the seething insistence of his music.
Although I praised the absence of convoluted background motivation for the characters, the fact that I’m deep into this review without including the name of a single actor is telling. While there are some nice performances (Tom Hardy, Fionn Whitehead, Kenneth Branagh, the perpetually revelatory Mark Rylance), no one fully breaks through and takes command, forging the kind of portrayal that could make this a film for the ages. The pains of people are achingly realized, but no person is memorable. As much Nolan transcends the contained realm in which he previously resided, Dunkirk finds him flying only so far beyond his borders. In the end, it’s still all about the director.