Review: Dunkirk is a Technical Marvel but Lacks Emotional Resonance

Director Christopher Nolan has never been one to back away from ambitious movie projects, and he continues his full embrace of this ambitious love of film with his latest work “Dunkirk”. A dramatization of the evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk, France in 1940, “Dunkirk” is not so much a World War II movie as it is a tense thriller. Indeed it is an ambitious work of filmmaking with beautiful production values that include truly wonderful cinematography and sound design.

But where the movie succeeds in its visual beauty, it falters on its storytelling. The lack of a deeper emotional connection with the characters and a failure to provide more historical facts to the drama unfolding in front of us may leave one with a distant feeling. 

In fact, it is this emotional distance that can make viewing “Dunkirk” seem more like a documentary than a movie with characters we actually care about. There are certainly a number of recurring characters but a real connection and relationship with them are weak at best. Thus Christopher Nolan has chosen not to create that relationship that films like “Saving Private Ryan” and even last year’s “Hacksaw Ridge” exemplified, but rather an impersonal visual depiction of that crucial moment on a beach in France. Other critics may say that not spotlighting the characters is the entire point, but for audiences looking for more traditional war time storytelling, they won’t find many endearing personalities in “Dunkirk”.

The historical narrative is also lacking, as actual facts and figures are never fully relayed to the audience. It is certainly more than recommended for movie goers to research and read more about the movie they are seeing (especially historical films), but in the case of historical films, it is not unreasonable to expect the film to provide information for the viewer. The Dunkirk evacuation is not the most studied or commonly known chapter of the War, hence casual audiences will not likely have much knowledge on the event. This movie, however, did not even mention the month or year (May-June 1940), the operation Code Name (Operation Dynamo), the exact number of men stranded or the greater implications of this evacuation.

While some of the dialogue indicated what was happening, it was not informative enough of the scale and importance of this major event. Leaving the film it is doubtful audiences will be able to recount what the actual facts about the Dunkirk evacuation were, besides the fact that thousands of soldiers needed rescuing. But why were they stranded, what were the Germans doing, and who ordered any actions? These answers can be found by research but not by the film.

Dunkirk still 3

From a filmmaking perspective, the film is a wonder and some of the very best in cinematographic and sound editing work. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema captures both the vastness of the beaches and the sky, as well as more claustrophobic spaces like sinking hospital ships and downed fighter jets. His close-ups of men’s faces unsure of their fate are effective, if again impersonal. The story told from three perspectives (the land, sea, and air) features some splendid shots of aerial dog fights and strikingly real depictions of battleships sinking and the men trapped inside as the water begins to envelop them. The color is gray with a mood of sadness, yet its other color tones stand out sharply.

Sound design may not normally attract the audience’s attention, but it is a definite character in this film (perhaps here in place of the little developed human figures). The sounds of the fighting planes, the shooting turrets, the bombs exploding, the screams of men and the rush of violent water are crisp, real and striking. In the race for awards, expect the technical aspects of this film to be nominated and likely win. Hans Zimmer’s musical score is also quite effective in delivering a taut and tense atmosphere; alongside a recurring ticking clock throughout the film, the score fits the tone of the action excellently.

And so where does “Dunkirk” fit into the catalog of Second World War films? As a cinematic feat, it is certainly impressive, and the skill of its filmmakers couldn’t be more evident. It looks beautiful and sounds beautiful and is assuredly striking, but its human touch is conspicuously absent. Some will undoubtedly disagree, feeling that not every war film needs to hear tales of soldiers’ past lives, desires, and challenges. While that’s true in itself, the human factor will always be in style and is what ultimately makes many movies stick with us. Sometimes great humanity and special effects meld together (the new Planet of the Apes series for instance, or epics like Lord of the Rings) and that is what makes them spectacular. “Dunkirk” has chosen to sidestep the deeper humanity and more informative facts in favor of a visual and audible feast. Leaving behind the emotional feast of human storytelling may not bother some, but Nolan’s decision in this direction is interesting especially considering his past work.

In the end, “Dunkirk” is a well made and interesting film that clearly shows how wonderful filmmaking techniques can be. Unfortunately, its historical narrative and characters were not defined enough to make this movie as a whole a complete success. When I think of “Dunkirk” I will think of its great technical achievements, when I think of “Saving Private Ryan” I will think of its great technical achievements and its great humanistic touch. “Dunkirk” could have been the great successor, and crown of all war films, but lost its heart somewhere on the beach.

Review: Dunkirk is a Technical Marvel but Lacks Emotional Resonance