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Well, that WASN’T a movie… but I liked it… umm… I think… (a Dunkirk review)

I’d actually been looking forward to Dunkirk for quite a while. I love a good war movie. And I like Christopher Nolan. So I was pretty excited to go see it this weekend and review it…

ummm…

So it’s a really hard movie to review. I’ve mentioned this before… how I’ll often come out of the theater and say to myself “yup, that was a movie alright.” I don’t know that I can for sure say that this time. I mean, I guess… if all it takes to be “a movie” is to be a series of subtly changing pictures, simulating the the illusion of animation by projecting onto a screen in rapid succession… Yeah… this totally did that. The similarities between this and what you might normally call a movie pretty much end there.

I liked it. I think… it’s just not… a story. At least not really.

I’ve been going back and forth about how to review this movie all evening. I don’t like to give spoilers in my movie reviews. I prefer to address them in terms of some other aspect. Something that the film does of literary or artistic value. And this one actually has a lot of that. But I can’t really talk about them without spoiling it. Because the artistic exploration is pretty much what this movie is about. And that could be good and it could be bad. Because really… it should probably be about the war.

In a lot of ways this sort of reminded me of my main problem with Girls Trip. The trailers and commercials don’t really tell you what this movie about. You’d think this is Harry Styles, Tom Hardy and Kenneth Branagh in Platoon or Full Metal Jacket. The posters even make you sort of feel like that. Nope. That’s not this at all.

It’s not a movie about people at all. There are no real “characters” in it. In as much as this is a movie about anything, it’s a movie about the event. As we were leaving the theater, Steph pointed out that the woman in front of us was saying how great it was and saying that she was sure the lead guy would be winning best actor. I’m not even sure which character she thought was the lead guy. Seriously, I have no fucking clue. There’s no real protagonist, because it’s not really a story about people. Honestly, I’m not even sure what most of the characters names are. They don’t matter, because they never say them. Because the whole point of the movie is to give you the sense that all of these unrelated people are sort of thrown together in this chaotic event that is war. They don’t know each other so we don’t know them. And in a sense that works. It gives you a feeling for the chaos of the situation. It sets you in the space and time. But there’s no one to really hold onto. There’s no one to follow. You don’t know anything about these people, so it’s impossible to really “care” about them as people. There’s no emotional connection. I won’t go so far as to say you don’t care if they live or die. You do, because we’re presented with a horrible ad frightening situation and you know that some of them won’t be making it out alive. But you’re not really connected to any of them enough to care WHO lives and dies. You sort of just want as many people to make it as can. And that’s clearly an intentional choice on Nolan’s part. He doesn’t want you to know them. He wants you to think of them as the many nameless and faceless men on “The Greatest Generation” who fought in that war. They could be anyone. Branagh is one of the greatest actors on the planet. But really, any good actor could have done what he did here. I’ve only been out of the movie for a couple hours and I can’t even remember which of the random brunette soldiers Harry Styles was… I mean, I know he was one of them… I recognized him at the time. But now I’m like… yeah, whatever, I guess. The only reason I remember which character Tom Hardy portrayed is that Nolan did the tried and true mark of any great director and stuck a mask over his face for the entire movie so that you couldn’t really tell who he was. At this point, Tom Hardy is our finest masked actor. But it sort of doesn’t matter that it’s him. The whole point is that these people could be anyone. They could have cast any actor in any role.

But the movie isn’t really about the event either. What’s most interesting about the film is that really, it’s a piece of experimental film making. It’s clearly a passion project for Nolan. He has a high concept thing that he wanted to do here and he did it… I’m not sure this was the right story to try it on but I’m not sure it was wrong either. He wanted to push the idea of what film and movies could be and do something innovative. And he kind of does. And it’s something that may or may not work for everyone. Especially when combined with the fact that there’s really no characters in the film, not much in the way of acting and very little plot. This is an art film. It is very much an art film and probably belongs in arthouse. Only it’s an art film that somehow got greenlit for a $150million budget because its Christopher Fucking Nolan. It is very much an exercise in postmodernism with a touch of poststructuralism to it. And if you don’t know what I mean by this… well, that’s kind of the problem with the movie.

And because the film is so consumed with making it’s postmodern statement on the fallacy of narrative and character and the other conventions of film making, it sort of fails to do the one thing that the trailers sort of implied it would do — teach the audience about the Battle of Dunkirk. If you don’t really know the history of what went on, when you leave this film… you still won’t. And you’re not going to be satisfied by just the spectacle of war, because this isn’t that either. It is a beautifully shot and immersive movie, but to really enjoy it you have to buy into the experiment and give yourself over to it. You have to allow yourself to understand that this is not what you’re normally getting out of a big budget movie and you have to be okay with it and become engaged with it.

So for me the experiment worked. I got it, I was challenged by it, and I was into it. But I really felt like it detracted from the story as a whole. I felt like I didn’t get to see the movie I went to the theater for, and while I enjoyed what I got, I still kind of want that other movie too. This is going to be the kind of movie that I think most people are either going to really love or be really bored by. Sadly, I think most people who read the things I write WON’T go to see it. And that’s a shame, because I’m really curious to see what people think.

★★½❄︎½☆ (2.5 stars plus 1.5 snowflakes for an effective 4 out of 5 stars if you like cinematic experimentation and 2.5 stars if you don’t)

11 comments for “Well, that WASN’T a movie… but I liked it… umm… I think… (a Dunkirk review)

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    July 22, 2017 at 11:03 pm

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  7. avatar
    July 23, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    Despite not knowing most of the characters’ names, I really connected with them and the events. I guess it worked for me more than you. I also really liked the odd timing structure he was using, which I guess more than anything is now his calling card: multiple parallel streams running at different speeds or time frames, that all wind up connecting at the end.

    • avatar
      July 23, 2017 at 3:27 pm

      Yeah. It’s hard to talk about it without spoilers. I didn’t NOT like it… it worked for me. But I totally get how someone could be really annoyed with it.

      The nonlinearity is weird in that I don’t think the story “needs” it. And in fact I think it sort of detracts from it a bit. Granted there’s not much of it. And I feel like Nolan doesn’t really “care”. He’s more interested in HIS project.

      It’s interesting though because there’s something to the challenge of watching it and seeing it piece together. I hesitate to call it a masterpiece because I have some nitpicky things that didn’t work (it’s not memento) but I did enjoy it.

  8. avatar
    July 24, 2017 at 9:15 pm

    I’m with most of your review. There were characters who I knew what their motivation was, but I couldn’t even tell them apart. It is the massive visuals I’d love to have in a Dunkirk documentary (I have to admit I think of Dunkirk less as a battle, than as an evacuation), but it seems to lack the overall story of the events (with or without a revisionist slant) that I’d expect from a documentary. Then, if I compare it to “Saving Private Ryan”, it doesn’t give enough flesh to any of the characters to emotionally grab ahold of. But I still was moved by it and liked it. (I can’t really say I enjoyed it, it isn’t a comfortable topic that I don’t believe should be enjoyed.)
    I watched Valerian yesterday, and it has similar problems with lack of connection to its characters, but without any artistic direction to justify the failure.
    Also, I love the use of the snowflake rating system.

    • avatar
      July 24, 2017 at 10:29 pm

      The snowflake ratings, like the “fucking cookies” will only make special appearances when necessary.

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