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Movie Review: #Dunkirk

Dunkirk is a disappointing and distracting mess.

Review by Matt Cummings

This year's box office Summer of Shame has taught Hollywood many painful lessons: reboots and sequels might not bring home the bacon if its story and characters aren't appealing. And while the WWII escape movie Dunkirk fits into neither category, I am not sold at all on its lavishing by critics. It's clunky, employs cute Hollywood tricks rather than endearing us to its characters, and ultimately fails because it violates the most important rule of film.

As the German war machine rolls over Europe in 1940, British and French soldiers have their backs to the English Channel in the town of Dunkirk. There, they wait for war ships, transports, and ambulatory vessels to rescue them. Unfortunately, German U Boats rule the oceans and exact a high price from the Allies, sinking vessels at will and creating a potential human catastrophy for the 400,000 soldiers who wait. Taken from several different viewpoints, Dunkirk follows a Navy Admiral (Kenneth Branagh), a Royal Air Force pilot (Tom Hardy), and a group of young men desperate to flee the impending German advance. Their very lives will depend on weekend sailors like Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), who's answered the call to brave The Channel to effect the greatest evacuation of soldiers in the history of wartime.

Dunkirk is beautifully-shot and a powerful aural experience to be sure. As German aircraft begin their bombing runs, we feel the ground shake and speakers ripple, satisfying our need for realism in war. We get the sense of the scope of the tragedy, as hundreds of troops await a rescue that might not come along a stretch of beach that looks as desperate as their chances for survival. But Dunkirk violates the most important rule of film: center your story around compelling characters, not situations. By failing to let our actors get into their characters' motives and aspirations, Director Christopher Nolan and Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema keep the audience at bay, never letting us into the lives of these men. Without that emotional binding, Dunkirk quickly becomes a confusing series of moments wrapped around an editing trick.

Dunkirk is told in a non-linear fashion, jumping from morning in one sequence, then the previous evening in the next, before ending some time during the day of the evacuation. If you step out of the theater, you will become confused. Our test audience emerged with many more pieces of advice, most of them surrounding Nolan's choice to use effects like a stopwatch, heartbeat, and the score by Composer Hans Zimmer for it story beats. Such techniques might have worked if Dunkirk had also been built on a strong story, but they become confusing tricks that make it feel like a bad version of a Quentin Tarantino movie. And while these are what ultimately dooms Dunkirk, its final insult is perhaps its greatest.

You see, Dunkirk isn't about brave soldiers fighting to stay alive for the next battle: it's centered around scared and cowardly boys who try several times to escape, only to have their ships shot out from underneath them. They don't assist a wounded man primary to help him, but instead carry him aboard in the hopes of stealing away themselves. I know what Nolan is trying to do, but it comes off as self-centered and greedy. Granted, I might have escaping was the only answer, but I can't agree that going AWOL is something to celebrate. Meanwhile, Hardy hides behind yet another mask for most of his scenes, shooting planes out of the sky but never getting a moment to interact or allow us to celebrate. Nolan does keep the runtime under 2 hours, but many in our audience stated that Dunkirk's pacing was far too laborious. I agree.

Critics are claiming that Dunkirk is perhaps Nolan's best movie. I hardly agree. In its effort to make itself unique, Dunkirk succumbs to Oscar slavishness, devoting too much time on employing tricky timeslipping and sound effects to garner our attention, rather than telling a compelling story of the men who so desperately wanted out of the city. While it sounds incredible and should play well on IMAX and other high-end systems, it's easily one of the most disappointing movies of the year. But it's also likely that critics will push this film right down our throats, in a vain effort to make something seem more influential than it actually is.

Dunkirk is rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language and has a runtime of 106 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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