Dunkirk is a mess of plots we don’t care about: but it looks great!

In Uncategorized on January 10, 2018 at 19:59


Dunkirk-A Review.

Dunkirk is a wonderful film to look at, however, it is at once too much and too little. There are too many cuts and too many subplots that it is easy to lose interest in what is happening. The cuts come quickly, which works with the air and action scenes, but holding longer on some shots would have allowed us to feel the gravity of the situation. By cutting quickly away, we don’t have time to feel the full impact of the drama. 

Inevitably, I found myself comparing Dunkirk to other WWII films. It holds up well, with two notable exceptions. First, the intensity and close contact action is not as impactful as the opening to “Saving Private Ryan.” However, the tension throughout the entirety of “Dunkirk” surpasses “Ryan,” which move aimlessly at times. I also think of the remarkable “Das Boot”, a film that made many sympathize, me included, with Nazis in a submarine. The tension in that German classic is at a level that “Dunkirk” doesn’t match, and “Das Boot” never relents until the ending. 

Moreover, in “Das Boot”, we get to know the captain well, how he cares about each man in his command and we see his fear. That makes the film more interesting for us. There is one setting in Das Boot, a submarine, and that’s all. The film’s limited scope increases the tension and our attachment to each character.

Moreover, not all the subplots in Dunkirk work well. A subplot involving a volunteer civilian ship-mate, George, is awkward and unnecessary. Certainly, Nolan wants us to empathize with all the British citizens who aided in the rescue. He also wants us to understand the “shell shock” (PTSD) that the soldiers go through. Both the bravery of the volunteers and suffering of the soldiers was clear throughout the film and a tacked on, haphazard conflict on a civilian boat was not well thought out. The scene is an insipid distraction from the core of the film. However, the depictions of shell shock in general were realistic and impactful.

There was also a scene featuring a beached vessel that added nothing to the story but another subplot to distract us from more interesting characters and plot lines. In this way, the film is reminiscent of disaster films from the 70s where each character faces life and death challenges and we briefly see what happens to each one of them. But we don’t need to see what happens to every character and every way the soldiers were stranded. All the plots and actions leave us too scattered to deeply care about any of them. 

The acting was surprisingly flat with two exceptions: Mark Rylance as a private ship captain Mr. Dawson and Tom Glynn-Carney who plays his son Peter. More about their story and bravery and less about the tacked on George would have improved this film. In fact, I would just kill the George character entirely. 

Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton was a waste of a great talent. His dialogue was a clumsy attempt to explain the gravity of the situation, but it added little that the battle footage didn’t already show us. Moreover, Branagh’s stares into space did nothing for the film. But damn, he does look good in that uniform. 

Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is overwrought and melodramatic. Much like John Williams in Schindler’s list, Zimmer wants to make sure we FEEL things. More subtlety would have served this film well. And the unnecessary sounds added to some of the battle scenes were annoying and distracting. The sounds of war: the machines, the engines, the bombs, the bullets, are compelling enough. There was no need to embellish them. I would suggest that Mr. Zimmer stick to pure actions films like “Inception” as I have suggested that Williams stick to actions films like “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” Serious dramas need less bravado and more nuance. 

There were some great directorial choices here as well. First, the lack of machoism is refreshing. While there is a lot of posturing and anger in the film, what clearly comes across is that many of the soldiers were rightfully scared or enduring as best they could. There was no John Wayne characters on the beeches, or in this case Benjamin Cumberbatch, proclaiming that the British were going to punch the Nazi’s in the nose. 

What was also lacking was a bigger feeling about war in general. Das Boot was also able to first, show us the futility of war and two, show us how the generals and admirals had no clue and made huge strategic mistakes. Little of that comes across in Dunkirk. It shows a great rescue but ignores that this operation was only required because the Allies underestimated Germany’s power and were outflank by the Nazi advance when they failed to anticipate a German Blitz through the Ardennes. The military strategists were so inept that the whole British army almost went balls up during the retreat. In Das Boot, the commanders of the operation are clearly held accountable.  

Another good directorial choice is not stereotyping the Germans as ‘evil.’ Certainly, the Nazi leadership was a humanity hating force of slaughter, but the film focused of the heroic British, French and other allies. 

The filming and shots were well chosen and placed. An award for cinematography could be granted for degree of difficulty alone. 

Rating: Matinee. 

What could have been one of the best war films in history is mired in a hash of plots and subplots with little to root for. Still, seeing it in 70 mm is a treat worth the viewing. 


Tex Shelters

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