DUNKIRK: Masterpiece or Hollow Spectacle?
Updated: Mar 12, 2019
I saw Dunkirk opening night on IMAX 70mm. In such a format, it is almost impossible not to be overcome by the intense focus, and massive scope of Christopher Nolan's latest effort. There has never been a better advocate for large format cinematography than this film. The nearly square frame of IMAX absorbs you, completely spanning your field of view. In the aerial sequences, Tom Hardy rolls his Spitfire, and the distant horizon barrels upwards; real photography, real aircraft, flying through the sky, actors within, no green screen. One could scarcely be closer to the real thing, and yet, I found myself completely divested of any emotional response. Even as the waves rolled over me with the soldiers struggling at sea, I felt completely separated from the narrative; outside, cold and without care from one scene to the next. (Spoilers follow!)
The following day I spoke to my mother, a minor Anglophile and casual Nolan fan. I told her I saw the film.
“Did it have compelling characters, who you really fall in love with and root for?” she asked.
“Well...” I struggled, “the film's not really about the characters... It's more about being immersed in the world of the characters and experiencing their perspective,”
“Oh,” she said, rather confused, and we changed the subject.
I was struck by how little sense this word salad of a sentence made. Here's another one: how could a film NOT be about the characters... about which the film is about? Why must a film not be about a character in order for a theater goer to inhabit his or her perspective?
The film's director, Christopher Nolan, has described Dunkirk as “VR without the goggles” as a highly "subjective experience.” In one way or another, Dunkirk seeks to put the audience within the film, to be the protagonist rather than a mere passive observer of the protagonist. This is not a novel idea within cinema, but perhaps it has never been attempted on so large a scale as this.
However, I believe aspects of Dunkirk's execution are fundamentally at odds with Nolan’s thesis. Two specifically, I’d like to focus on: the protagonist of the story, portrayed by Fionn Whitehead, and the structure of the plot, written by Nolan. These two things are not explicitly connected but their weaknesses go hand in hand. Had either been stronger, the other might have been less of an issue.
Part 1: Character
There is a fundamental assumption in Dunkirk that in order for the audience to insert themselves into the narrative, they require a character as a proxy, and that this character should be rather thinly drawn so as to prevent any idiosyncrasies from getting in the way of the audience inserting themselves that perspective. Secondly, Nolan assumes that the extreme danger alone shall induce our empathy.
This is taken to such an extreme in Fionn Whitehead’s protagonist, that it renders the opposite effect. He is so unspecific, so thinly drawn as to be completely unrelatable. There is a clear and deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers to forgo any opportunity to “get to know” Tommy -- the credited name of Whitehead’s character -- though this name is never uttered in the film that I can remember.
This is no accident, Nolan has said, "I did not want to go through the dialogue to tell the story of my characters. The problem is not who they are, who they claim to be, or where they come from."
To clarify, the minimal dialogue is not explicitly the problem, but that Nolan seems to have tossed out almost all characterization entirely.
There are other characters who fare better. Their dialogue remains minimal, but it is enough to give us hints of their character and to endear them to us. But let us have no illusions here, it is Tommy's predicament that is the fundamental concern of the story. The others are mere reactionary figures to the situation that surrounds him. Tommy also has the most screen time, and we begin and end the story following his journey.
Thus I think it is reasonable to assume that Tommy is primarily who the audience is supposed to identify with and the other characters to a far lesser degree, and yet Tommy, never becomes more than a mere husk for the audience to move about within. He is unnaturally silent; not calling out for the other soldiers to “make way” as he attempts to carry a stretcher up The Mole. He rarely speaks, only when absolutely necessary and in very short sentences that directly pertain to survival. In a rare exception, near the end to the film, as he is pulled from the fiery, oil covered waters he utters “Take me home.”
However, we have no idea what home means to him or what specifically about this he so misses. Emotionally, nothing else in the film suggests his desire to be home save for what is obvious given his external situation. There is no insight into this desire from a personal standpoint, and the line consequentially falls flat, landing like an aberration of the screenplay rather than the spontaneous outcry of a real person.
Throughout the film Tommy is a disengaged, isolated figure, even amongst his ragged “companions” that join him as the film progresses. He is so separate as to seem inhuman. With this inhuman figure as our proxy into Nolan’s world, our perspective is likewise; separate and inhuman.
I have brought this issue of Tommy's lack of characterization to proponents of the film and I have often received the same refrain: that it would be in some way stupid or ancillary if there was talk of girlfriends back home, or of parents, and etc, and that it was a good thing we didn't know anything about him. I find this frustratingly reductive in several ways.
First, it requires a binary approach. Either we must know nothing about Tommy, or he must endlessly pine for home and his girl waiting for him. I only suggest that we need something to grasp onto. Tommy requires specific characterization that makes him a unique individual rather than a vague outline of a young soldier. The default reply concerning a waiting girlfriend demands follow up question: “Well if not that, then what?” I concede, there is no easy answer. Rather, it is the specific duty of a screenwriter to dig deep and find the solution that is correct for both the character and the story.
The second assumption is that a girlfriend waiting back home is actually a bad thing. This may be something of a cliché, but a cliché is only so when it is unspecific and reliant on an audience's base understanding for its emotional impact. While I do not personally think it would be the right choice for this film, I see no inherent problem with such an arrangement so long as it was dealt with in a unique way and with well crafted characters.
“Well, if not that, then what?”
Rather than making Tommy something else, something contrary to Nolan's vision, e.g. a charismatic, friendly and heroic chap, with a girl back home, I would be more interested in knowing why Tommy is the way he is. Why is he so withdrawn, an outsider within his own army, isolated and separated from his would be compatriots? We must lay aside talk of Nolan being inspired by silent films, or other aforementioned intellectual explanations of why Tommy's character exists in this manner. I find silent cinema inspiring myself, but we must deal with the film based off its internal logic, not the external ideas that inspired it. For a lay moviegoer, these preoccupations are irrelevant, especially when such an explanation pays no regard to human behavior. I am not interested in Tommy’s nature intellectually, but from character standpoint. I think the film could have delved into this, not so much with flashbacks or exposition, but through performance.
In the opening moments of the film we witness Tommy’s mates being killed – mowed down by off-screen Germans. Yet, save for an instinctive effort to run, , he doesn't react to this at all. There is no shock, not even terror, only a reflexive escape attempt. We don't even know if they were truly his mates at all, or if he just stumbled upon them before the film as he does everyone else. Perhaps his original crew, his squad with whom he lived and fought, were killed long before the film, and he on his own strength and craftiness, retreated from deep within France all the way to the shores of Dunkirk, just trying to get home. We might imagine that, seeing the British Expeditionary Force routed, his squad killed, his battalion in full retreat, any artifice of being a soldier and sense of duty has been eroded from his consciousness. Yet even though this is a reasonable assumption for Tommy's past few weeks, both Nolan and Whitehead seem utterly disinterested in creating such a persona around him, or a persona at all.
There is little sense of the war going on before the film or after, and how it brought the characters to their present state. The soldiers stand in thin lines, stretching out into the frigid waters. They are faceless, emotionless. One can almost picture them waiting there for all eternity. On pure aesthetics it is an unforgettable sight, but they seem to exist solely for this intricately crafted world of Nolan's, serving only his relentless plot. This is the defining characteristic of Fionn's Tommy. He lacks any specificity that makes him feel human. He is simply Nolan's automaton of audience immersion.
I am reticent to ever blame an actor for a bad performance; after all, they are evaluated by the director, who solely decides at what point the right performance has been captured. An actor often has little perspective regarding if their work is right or wrong for a film, and they must give their trust to the director in evaluating if their performance is adequate, and if not, to speak up and tell them what needs to change.
Thus, without laying the blame at his feet, I found Fionn's performance to be startlingly deficient. In a scene early in the film, Tommy encounters another soldier in the midst of burying a body. Who was this? Is he burying a friend, is he stealing from a corpse? Was this a murder? Aneurin Barnard's character stares back a Tommy, a fascinating mix of shame, fear, and resolve in his eyes. He has been outed, but how will his discoverer respond? Hundreds of questions arise in the audience's mind, all the while, Fionn gives nothing back. He does not process this information at all, nor does it affect him in any way. He merely gestures for the other to give him a sip of water from his canteen. The other complies and throws him a drink. There is no look of thanks on Tommy's face, no relief, nor any kind of nonverbal exchange. The silent conversation between them is completely one sided. Aneurin carries the entire sequence, while Fionn simply performs the physical tasks required of his character. Again, I do not wish to blame Fionn for this. We can only assume that every take of his performance passed under Nolan’s gaze. Nonetheless, I wonder if a more seasoned performer could have made the minimalistic character feel human and deserving of our empathy.
I would love to have been a fly on the wall, watching as Nolan prepared Fionn for the role. Did they discuss the character of Tommy at all? Who he is, where he came from? These questions are of the utmost importance for an actor, even if the words are never spoken. If such conversations did happen, they were not manifested on screen. I find it more likely that Nolan simply told him about all the explosions that would be surrounding him, that he'd be twenty feet from a capsizing ship, and that he'll be thrown about, cold, wet, and sandy the entire time. I was utterly unable to identify with Tommy, or more importantly to insert myself into the narrative through his perspective. I found myself always at an arm’s length from his struggles and indifferent to his survival and his woes. Thus, contrary to Nolan’s intent, I was unable to experience the film through Tommy’s eyes.
Part 2: The Plot Structure
The structure of Dunkirk is comprised of three separate timelines that each transpire over a different length of time. The beach, is purported as a week, but what is seen on camera plays as closer two days. Next is the sea, which unfolds over a single day, and finally the air which transpires over two hours. These three timelines are compressed proportionally to have roughly equal run times within the film, and they are cut together to insure that there is always a tense moment occurring. As soon as action winds down in one timeline, it begins elsewhere.
However, I do not feel that Nolan's elaborate, time-spanning structure served to increase audience immersion. In editing, one often discusses two types of cuts: a micro edit – one within a scene, and thereby one that obeys the temporal reality of a scene – and a macro edit, which serves to connect scenes together, and therefore, across time. Dunkirk is, by necessity, chock full of macro edits which serve to connect the narrative into what Nolan deems most intense and immersive.
Macro edits, due to their time spanning nature, fundamentally push the audience out of the story, making them an external viewer, rather than one within. On a narrative level, any edit across time requires mental effort on the part of the audience to bridge the gap, and this effort by necessity pulls one outside of the story even if it is only for a microsecond. This is not necessarily a bad thing, after all almost every film is composed of scenes that are scattered across time. But these edits play such a massive role in Dunkirk that they clash with Nolan’s thesis of audience immersion. An edit across time is fundamentally in conflict with how we experience life. In Dunkirk, life is portrayed in three separate perspectives, and on top of that, in three distinct chronologies. Humans cannot experience time how it is portrayed in Dunkirk; we cannot easily identify with multiple concurrent perspectives, much less when they are not temporally related. It takes a great deal of effort to feel stranded on a beach when the narrative can at any point transport us instantaneously to other places and times to witness other events.
If the story of Dunkirk was constrained to Tommy's perspective I suspect that my issues with his character would be less significant, as we would be viscerally set within the confines of his struggles. In this scenario, I think Tommy would disappear into the background, the audience almost taking his place, as Nolan intended. But because the film intercuts other perspectives, characters, and time frames, we are always evaluating his situation from a certain intellectual distance rather than truly experiencing time with him.
Furthermore, there are moments within the film where this time construct serves to utterly dissolve any tension, by creating dramatic irony in the last place that one should belong: Tom Hardy's Spitfire flies overhead, there is a ship being attacked by a bomber, meanwhile a nearby a group of soldiers dive off a sinking civilian boat -- abandoning ship. Who are these soldiers, and where did the boat come from?
In the following sequence, the film cuts back in time to our protagonists on the beach, Tommy and his compatriots then stumble upon this very boat that we just witnessed, only at this point it is grounded on the beach. Over the next twenty minutes or so, in a prolonged sequence, the soldiers wait for the ship to be dragged out to sea. Dangerous events follow, a number of superficially tense moments transpire, the boat is shot full of holes, and there is some paranoid discussion within the desperate survivors. Yet all of this tension is completely supplanted by our knowledge that these soldiers will inevitably make it out to sea and jump out of the boat. This knowledge completely robs the sequence of any tension. It is a spoiler that is set within the structure of the film itself. There would be no problem with this if the film's insights were more into the nature of the characters and not simply about their visceral experience of fear. Nolan's own structural conception undermines his intent, all the while calling attention to the deficiencies of the characters inhabiting his world.
There is another moment near the end of the film in which this juggling of multiple perspectives fell to its weakest point. A lone German aircraft sets its sights on Mr. Dawson's boat, which now houses our protagonist and other survivors from the aforementioned sinking boat. The German plane begins its dive for a strafing run, the music ratchets up, then right as the tension begins to rise, the film cuts to an unrelated sequence, where a different German dive bomber, in a similar manner, descends upon the Mole. Kenneth Branagh's Commander Bolton looks up in fear. The two scenes unfold in this manner; each beat echoed by the other until each is resolved. The choice feels peculiar, as the two scenes are nearly identical, and there is little insight gained by combining them. In neither of these sequences is there any great sense of spatial danger. The time normally used to establish this danger is replaced by the other sequence, and because both of these scenes infringe on the other, neither of the moments have quite enough time to work on their own, and through their deficiencies, they become nothing greater when combined.
Addendum: While editing this, it has occurred to me that this might be the same German plane in both sequences, thus providing a rather tepid connection between the two sequences. But I do not think this is a connection that the audience can instinctively make upon viewing the film, or that it particularly enhances the experience.
It is worth mentioning that Nolan has used this method to great effect in previous films, most notably in the Inception rotating hallway sequence. However, the key difference between these two films is that, in Inception, the editing is informed by the story, and each timeline reacts to the other: In the top level, Yusuf's van tumbles off the road. Down one dream level, gravity shifts dramatically for Arthur; he spins and tumbles about, just as the van spins in the dream level above. This sequence would be nonsensical without the information in the other timeline, and thus when these two dream levels are cut together, the sequence becomes far greater than the two on their own. Yet in Dunkirk, there is nothing motivating the two strafing runs to be cut together. They are separate events that have no effect on the other. I can think of nothing specific that is revealed on any level, either visceral or sub-textual, through the combination of these events into one cinematic moment. It seems to exist only for the sake of continuing the film's editing pattern, yet without any specific rhyme or reason that serves the two moments on their own.
Dunkirk feels like a compromise on Nolan's part. A compromise between the film he wanted to make and what he was convinced would be palatable for an audience (and for studio funding). I for one would be interested to see a more experimental approach that completely avoided having a specific protagonist at all, and if we moved about the beach witnessing little moments of desperation, and heroism, each separate and unique. But that isn't Dunkirk. I would conversely be interested in a character piece, a study of Tommy and his experience: how he came to escape and the sacrifices he had to make. Instead we are kept at a distance from him, and are burdened by other perspectives. Thus, Dunkirk isn't that either. Finally, I would be interested in a more macroscopic film, something like The Longest Day, which through its breadth, conveys the massive scope of conflict. This is suggested at in Dunkirk through the multiple timeliness, through the Admirals murmuring about the consequences on the Mole, and through Churchill's famous speech being forced into the film's final moments, but these ideas are in conflict with what Nolan has purported as the thesis of Dunkirk, that of total immersion. We cannot be immersed in an intense, subjective perspective if we frequently traverse time and space and witness events from a myriad of angles.
Thus we find that Dunkirk is a strange compromise of all three. Perhaps this is what is so frustrating for me about the film. One can feel its potential, its nearness to greatness. Few in Hollywood are even attempting what Nolan has done in his work, and he remains a figure that I have great respect and admiration for. Yet while I have had minor quibbles with a number of things in his more recent films, they had still worked for me on a visceral and emotional level until Dunkirk, in which I found myself unmoved and disengaged, even as the most harrowing and spectacular sequences unfolded before my eyes.
A quick note about the music:
I am convinced that what tension the audience has clearly felt, based off the positive reactions to the film, are almost entirely due to Hans Zimmer's score. Never has the cliché phrase “pulse pounding” been so adequate a description, and I concede it is not exactly fair to separate a film from its score, but how much tension would truly remain without Hans' incessant strings? Some sequences, like the stretcher carrying and the first aerial battle, would hold up better than the rest of the film.
Fairness aside, surely there is some merit in discussing the tension inherent in a sequence when separated from the endlessly eloquent companion that music is to cinema. I am reminded of the climactic moment from Hitchcock's classic, Rear Window. though a little dated in execution, it remains a remarkably intense moment, despite having more or less no music throughout. Or take the modern classic, No Country For Old Men, a film fraught with suspenseful moments, all with nothing more than a few atmospheric drones scattered throughout the entire duration. Of course, not every film can or should be this way. But in Dunkirk I was aware of a certain artifice of the tension. I explicitly recall myself thinking, “I am not actually scared right now, but this music is making my heart beat fast.”
I accompanied my mother on my second viewing of the film, in the aftermath, her first words were to comment on the intensity of the score. In past Nolan films, her reaction was always to the story and the characters. I even recall bringing up the grandness of the Interstellar score, and being surprised at her not remembering it. So invested was she in the events of the film itself, that even the massive, swelling organ landed beneath her conscious awareness. But in Dunkirk, there is nothing more to really talk about once the film is over, save for the music. There was certainly no discussion of Tommy, we didn’t even know his name. Did Fionn even know his name?
- Bryan Tan