DUNKIRK. Not as good as people think

Dunkirk is a textbook example of form over substance.

Jakub Piwoński

6 August 2023

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk managed to excite audiences and critics alike. There was no end to the admiration, and if anyone tried to point out a hole in the whole, they do it extremely conservatively.

I will stand by these raptures. Unlike most, the screening of Nolan’s war film disappointed me, bored me, and sometimes even irritated. I’ve had enough of this specific euphemism that pops up in every discussion of Nolan’s work. Everyone approaches his films very carefully, touching them through a handkerchief. That is why I decided to put forward five, in my opinion, quite obvious and clear arguments against Dunkirk.

Because it’s not as good a movie as most people think it is. And it’s certainly not a revolution in war cinema. Yes, I agree, the British provided us with a visual feast – I will not argue with that. But that’s not enough. Dunkirk is a textbook example of form over substance. War cinema is not created by the effect, but by the soul, which Nolan’s movie lacks.

A story that doesn't play much of a role

The issue of the alleged unreliability of Nolan’s film in relation to historical facts (such as the marginalization of the role of French soldiers in the course of the action) is not the most important in this case. I’ve always been of the opinion that the art of film has its own rules, and one of them is the ability to interpret a story in such a way that it is attractive to the audience. The problem is that in Nolan’s film it is very difficult to feel this historicity – it plays a secondary role in relation to the plot, because Nolan’s “how” remains in the foreground anyway, not “what”. After the picture, which already in the title makes it clear that it was created on the basis of a connection with history, the viewer is expected to introduce the viewer to the events known from school textbooks so skilfully that there is no need to refer to them right after the screening. Dunkirk has a clear problem with this, and if it wasn’t for the information about the place of action appearing at the very beginning of the film, the viewer would not be able to locate the observed events in the right time and space (because not everyone knows the uniforms of British soldiers from the Second World War). There isn’t even a line of dialogue capable of expanding this context. And without that, the distant sound of objects approaching the beach is more like… persistent mosquitoes, not deadly enemy bombers.

Action that does not engage

Treating the historical context only as a tool leading to a specific effect is not the main problem of the film’s content. Because the most important thing is that Dunkirk is simply a surprisingly boring movie. The viewer is thrown into the whirlwind of events that are supposed to evoke excitement. But this couple apparently only had enough for a perfectly edited trailer for the movie. The plot based on passive waiting for the next attack or an unexpected miracle does not work, because it does not have the potential to maintain attention. Nothing in it is interesting, nothing encourages you to look for the finale, because it is known in advance that it will take a typical turn anyway. Nolan preferred to focus on showing what he thought the war was like, rather than writing some interesting commentary on it. But in truth, the non-engaging action is most closely related to the next point.

Characters with no personality

It’s hard to care about what’s happening on screen if none of the characters are at least a little close to us. Nolan deliberately bet on the fact that there is not only one hero in the film, but a collective hero. Secondly, he also made sure that the individual parts of this community remain completely anonymous to the viewer. Although he wanted to focus the viewer’s attention on the war itself, he forgot that war was and is created by people. With no personality or character to be discovered especially for the viewer, the characters seen on the screen become mere mannequins for him. And I can’t feel sorry for them. It’s a wonder, then, that Nolan decided to (again) hire such well-known and respected actors as Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, and Kenneth Branagh for several roles. It may sound unfortunate, but I am of the opinion that their episodes could be successfully played by ordinary extras (but soon voices will probably rise about how beautifully Hardy can play with his eyes and all).

Music that doesn't match the screen

One of the most common points in any praise song written for Dunkirk is the admiration of the music and how skillfully it can complete the picture. Well, that’s not true. Hans Zimmer’s music, although it sounds endearing and can evoke anxiety in the viewer, at times completely does not match what we see on the screen. And it’s partly the assembly’s fault. The characteristic ticking of the clock implicitly leads to the climax, then is interrupted by some completely unnecessary dialogue or scene, unrelated to what we have been watching for the last few minutes. The second issue concerns the alleged originality of this music. Those who know Zimmer know that he likes to follow his own paths. It is no different in Dunkirk – the theme of the ticking of the clock has already been heard, for example, in Interstellar and Sherlock Holmes.

Blood that doesn't gush

Pure absurdity for dessert. Dunkirk is a war without blood. When it first came to the media that one of Nolan’s ideas for a war movie was to present the action in such a way that it did not contain unnecessary – as I presume in his opinion – escalation of violence, a red warning light went off in my head. It is true that thanks to this the film got into the PG 13 category, which gave the possibility of greater receipts from cinemas. But it also lost a lot of realism. I never thought blood was necessary in these types of shows. Completely abandoning it is not a solution either. The truth is that it is the sight of blood that triggers a primordial feeling in us, and as a result we are able to empathize even better with the pain experienced by the characters.

It sounds like a cliché, but each of the points mentioned is like that. Nolan made textbook mistakes, but I’ll bet dollars to donuts that most of you will see it as part of his brilliant calculations. To be completely honest, I personally fuck an art where the artist, inviting me to see his new vision, first gives me a manual for it. I respect Nolan, I sympathize with some of his achievements, but through the prism of this sympathy, I am not going to make sense where there is simply none.

Jakub Piwoński

Jakub Piwoński

Cultural expert, passionate about popular culture, in particular films, series, computer games and comics. He likes to fly away to unknown, fantastic regions, thanks to his fascination with science fiction. Professionally, however, he looks back more often, thanks to his work as a museum promotion specialist, investigating the mysteries of the beginnings of cinematography. His favorite film is "The Matrix", because it combines two areas close to his heart - religion and martial arts.

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