A Time Puzzle of a War Drama

Director Christopher Nolan has made some bulky movies in his career, with the last two—Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises—clocking in at closer to three hours than two hours.  So it was a bit of a surprise to find out that his new World War II drama Dunkirk had a runtime of only 106 minutes.  That runtime makes Dunkirk the second shortest of all Nolan’s features, longer only than his debut Following, which clocked in at a brief 96 minutes.  The movie also has a PG-13 rating, a rarity among recent war films.  But Nolan’s purpose with Dunkirk is not to tell a bloated drama graphically depicting the horrors of war, but rather to tell the true-life heroic story of survival in the time needed to tell the story.  For the most part, Nolan succeeds with Dunkirk, but time factors into the film more than just its runtime.

The title of the movie refers to the seaside town in northern France where thousands of British, French, and Belgian soldiers were stranded, cut off by the rest of their armies, and surrounded by German forces in the early part of World War II.  The movie tells the story in three intermingling parts, focusing on the efforts of the men on the beach to survive the onslaught of German bombers long enough to find a boat home, a pair of pilots looking to fight off the German planes, and the civilians piloting their own boat on a mission across the Channel to rescue as many men as they can.  The movie cuts back and forth between these three stories which will inevitably cross paths as the rescue operation proceeds.

Tom Hardy as Farrier in DunkirkWhere the movie gets complicated and becomes something of a puzzle is that while each of these storylines are given equal attention and screentime throughout the movie as if the events depicted are occurring simultaneously, the events we are cutting back and forth between are not necessarily happening at the same time.  The drama unfolding on the beach takes place over a period of a week, the action on the boat in a day, and the airplanes are only in the air for an hour.  This makes for a more cerebral of a war film than one that walks us through the events in a straight line and can result in taking the audience out of the movie at times while they try to figure out whether the sailing boat the plane is flying over in one scene is the same one that is trapped on the beach at low tide in the next.  This works at times when it gives us the same scene from two different perspectives, but for the most part it is just a puzzle that the audience will find themselves wanting to figure out.

Nolan also tells the story with a minimum amount of dialogue, focusing instead on the actions of the war.  While this works for the action, it can be somewhat counter-productive when it comes to character development.  This is especially true of the men on the beach.  We know which of the men we are supposed to be following as the movie is focusing on them, but since we do not learn much about them—even their names—it is more difficult to get invested in their survival, outside of the fact that we know they are allied soldiers and therefore on our side.  But it can be hard to root for “that guy” and because many of the men on the boats getting into the ships look similar, in crowd scenes, it can be easy to lose our protagonists.

Where the movie excels, though, is in its visuals.  It is clear that Nolan went the extra mile in order to created footage that looks authentic.  If you put footage from this movie beside footage taken by the war photography units of World War II, it would be difficult to distinguish which is genuine and which is recreated.  This is especially true in the case in the aerial photography, as the cameras are mounted onto the sides of the plane and on the reticle scope to share the pilot’s perspective with the audience.

There are very few lulls in the action as Dunkirk cranks the intensity up to eleven and leaves in there until the compassionate finale.  The intensity is aided by the forceful score by Nolan’s frequent collaborator, composer Hans Zimmer.  Much like his score for other Nolan films such as Inception, Zimmer’s musical accompaniment in Dunkirk is anything but subtle.  In a way, it drives the narrative forward more than the action itself.

Dunkirk is a terrifically filmed war movie that tells one of the most important stories of World War II, but the complicated timeline is more of a distraction than a successful narrative device and with one possible exception, we are never really drawn into the characters.  The result is a film that is very good and worth seeing, but falls short of some of the better World War II epics Hollywood has given us over the years.

Dunkirk is rated PG-13 for “intense war experience and some language.”  The movie is intense and there is plenty of opportunity for graphic violence, but the movie stays away from using gore to depict the horrors of war.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of Dunkirk.