Dunkirk: Still The Greatest War Film Of All Time?

Rating: 8 out of 10.

So, it appears that Kubrick and war can amalgamate into harrowing glory – or at least that’s what we’ve seen from Full Metal Jacket. But is Nolan, a director also renowned for his breathtaking visuals, analytically cold classics and lack of regard for the orthodox, compatible with conflict?

2017’s Dunkirk is set in France, ravaged by WWII, where 400,000 allied soldiers are surrounded by German forces and looking to evacuate. Elementally themed, the story follows desperate escapist Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) on land, foolhardy pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) via air, and patriotic pleasure sailor Dawson (Mark Rylance) by water, all aiming to help depopulate the French coastal city of Dunkirk.

Yes, it’s been four years since the film was released, to much elated sensationalism by critics and the masses subsequently flocking to their local cinemas to catch a glimpse of the hailed prodigy. But with the blaze smouldering down to ashes long ago, is the film still as good now without the favourable limelight on it?

Well, it’s Nolan, and even at his most hyperventilated pretentiousness, there’s always moments – even spells here – of undeniable brilliance. Plunged into the depths of wartime, the thrills and tension and suspense of the lucky dip of survival are guaranteed. The flick is very much a series of superb set pieces, expertly sown together and utilised to full effect: the sky shootout, and the succeeding plane escape; the torpedoed, sinking ship and its suffocating underwater scene, similar to that of The Prestige (and did anyone else notice hundreds of helmets on the floor just like the top hats?); the burning ocean interlaced with oil and soon-to-be-carcasses; and a series of bombs detonating closer and closer to Tommy which has to take the crown – not only the shot best of the film, but one of the greatest of the decade. If ever I was asked to give an an example of Nolan’s immaculate technicality, this would, without a doubt, be the one to submit.

His visuals are extraordinary, and with the film built solely around them at points, you better be thankful for it. His reluctance to use any CGI, instead deploying real planes, boats and, of course, explosions, is truly a feat worth appreciating. The sparsity of dialogue, instead just letting the audience be fully submerged into the world Nolan has created, is genius. He manages capture the fascinating scale of war by the sheer scale of his own film. It’s just massive, and to fully admire the lusciously sparse aesthetics, it’s worth seeing Dunkirk on the biggest screen with the biggest sound system you have.

And while the flick most definitely looks stunning, Nolan’s precise intuition flows through every sinew. He just loves that non-linear narrative, doesn’t he? It’s really well done here, even if a tad frivolous: while the land story is told over a week, the water chronicle lasts only a day and the air just an hour, but they’re so seamlessly cut together you’d never realise if they hadn’t have told us.

The lack of actual characterisation here always interest me. Well, perhaps it’s more the lack of significance any characterisations seem to hold. They’re merely tools to get knee deep into the action, to provide a neat way to further the story. If the land sequences had just been random groups of different soldiers, perhaps it wouldn’t have held the same impact, but the overall difference wouldn’t be altogether that disparate. I suppose it’s also a reason why the acting, dramatically inconsistent between, say, the always flawless Mark Rylance and former One Direction singer Harry Styles (a man solely cast for his commercial appeal), isn’t ever put under much stress to possibly damage the rest of the film. If you’re a fan of profound, psychological personality studies, Dunkirk most definitely lacks in that department, though, ultimately, you imagine it would only take away from Nolan’s main goal.

Which is? An experience.

My pitch to Warner Bros was ‘we’re going to put the audience into the cockpit of a Spitfire and have them dogfight the Messerschmitts’… It’s virtual reality without the headset.

Christopher Nolan

Characters? Narrative? Not important. It’s visually breathtaking, incredibly tempting to get yourself immersed in, to become part of. Nolan is here to boast how ridiculously talented he is at the practical side of film – and, to be fair, he is ridiculously talented. Just like Sam Mendes’ 1917, there’ll always be the argument about style over substance, and for the most part, that argument is probably correct. Beneath the perceptible, there’s not much to be dug up here. As someone once said to me, these are ‘coffee table movies’, and while that doesn’t come off as overly positive, being sucked into a film’s perfect cinematography, perfect toning and perfect directing is a feeling no one can refuse – once it has you in it’s grasp, it’s impossible to squirm free from it’s hypnotically claustrophobic atmosphere.

Another point which I think is worth pointing out is how surprising positive Dunkirk is. There’s something of a Brexit spirit to it: patriotism, glorifying World War II, dirty Germans – it seems to fuel the idea of an England that never existed. It’s certainly nowhere near as harrowing as some of the true masterpieces, and while delirious, blood soaked insanity and anti-war themes are no way necessities, they never hurt to drive forwards a far darker story than what we’re served with here. Nolan is a man who is often quite good at finely balancing between artistry and commercialism, but this pevertedly optimistic view of mass murder just doesn’t quite sit right with this viewer.

Yet, some quiet, emotionally satisfying moments hit hard, especially in the possibly overwhelming surge of big cinema – both Barry Keoghan’s George and Aneurin Barnard’s Gibson are used to superbly suggest perhaps not the bloodshed and horrors of war, but instead the human price that everyone has to pay: the fragility of life.

So, is it one of Nolan’s best films, as critics hailed it at the time? I would tend to disagree. While there’s a lot to like here, I think once again a big budget works against him, and unlike a more grounded Memento, there’s not much to see once you get passed the glossy finish.

Is it the greatest war film of all time? I scoff. Dunkirk is good, but it’s just like when Private Ryan was released in 1998. The hype builds to an unsustainable high, and people begin to make farcical claims in the heat of the moment that I reckon they would regret looking back on. Apocalypse Now is fifty times this film, and while this may be Nolan doing what Nolan does best, in the hotly competitive sub-genre of war, Dunkirk is, unfortunately, not even in the contest.

Dunkirk – 8 out of 10

27 thoughts on “Dunkirk: Still The Greatest War Film Of All Time?

        1. Yes, and I pretty much agree with you. Barry Keoghan is also an actor I try to avoid. I heard he got beaten up a few weeks ago. What was that all about?

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        2. Quite like Keoghan – he’s usually pretty good. As far as I know he was assaulted in Glasgow for some reason. You send Dix to do your dirty work?

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    1. 4.5! In my scoring, I’d say around 7 is more average for me, and I think Dunkirk is probably above average. I mean, it’s not a bad film. Never seen the 1958 one, Pete – looks interesting.

      I agree – I think it’s ridiculous. Worse yet, it appears some are sticking with it. Look at a few lists of people’s best war films, and it’s in the top ten. I don’t get it.

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  1. Very tough conclusion for a war film that’s far more brilliant than the major part of what we can see otherwise. According to Quentin Tarantino, it is the best of the 2010’s. Probably too excessive but that proves it’s an original vision of war. I like particularly the structure of it, the convergence of the timelines, three different perception of a moment. A patriotic point of view which is, from the French side of the view, not very well appreciated. Here in France, lots of critics said “where are the French soldiers?” remembering Jean-Paul Belmondo in Verneuil’s “Weekend at Zuydecoote” (a very slow chronicle of the Dunkirk episode). Nolan chose the British angle, I cannot blame him for it. The fact is he did it with intelligence, and an immersive vibration. Not the best War film, but an experience of war to remember.

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    1. Tarantino may be right there, but that’s probably more because a dismal show of the lack of quality in the 2010s than Dunkirk being something of a masterpiece. I agree that the structure is well done, and that’s really interesting about the French critics – of course, the French brought that extra time for the English to evacuate and basically saved our asses, so more appreciation there should probably have been necessary. It’s a interesting viewpoint, and, in a roundabout way, I think I agree with you.

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  2. Surprised you think there’s no characterisation here. There may not be the usual over-the-top dramatic scenes, and to some extent the film’s characters reflect the British character, but you essentially have three great characterisations. The boy just wants out of there – no idea about war, probably signed up for glory – but for pure sustained yet restrained fear his performance takes some beating. Rylance is exactly right for the courageous Brit doing his bit and Branagh and Co spot on in that British resilience under fire. The non-linear timeline worked best because it kept confused an audience who roughly knew about the event. Certainly in-your-face I-was-there stuff. Not sure about the greatest tag – The Longest Day surely takes that.

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    1. Mm. I see what you mean, but those are quite two-dimensional placeholders, really, and not at all explored as we advance further in the film. The best performances are great, but for those looking for stronger personalities that doesn’t make up for it. The non-linear timeline is a really good point.

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