Saturday, August 12, 2017


Alternate Title:  We Shall Bore Them on the Beaches...
One sentence synopsis:  A soldier, a civilian sailor, and a fighter pilot, all participate in the Battle of Dunkirk.

Things Havoc liked:   Christopher Nolan is a bit of a polarizing figure. There are those who regard him as the visionary auteur of modern high-concept classics like Inception, Memento, and the Dark Knight, and believe him to be a genius of tremendous skill and craft. There are also those who regard him as the talentless hack director of incorrigible disasters like Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises, and believe him to be a useless waste of cinema-space, incapable of producing a human element to go with his admittedly-pretty pictures. Strangely enough though, I find that very few people regard Christopher Nolan as I do, a director of considerable talents within a narrow range of filmmaking, whose high-concept balancing acts are not always buttressed by sufficient skill to actually pull them off, but who must, at least in some regard, be admired for the attempt. Perhaps there's no room in people's lives for gradations any longer, but I do like Nolan's work so long as he stays within his comfort zone, and given that Nolan's best films tend towards the clinical (Inception being basically two hours of exposition punctuated with explosions and Edith Piaf), I was interested in seeing what he might do with a classical, lavish war film. The cast is certainly no blemish, comprising reliable British fixtures like Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branaugh, Cillian Murphy, and even Michael Caine, and while I've not seen Nolan attempt a war film, I have seen him attain great success through ensemble casts in an intricate plot before. This seemed right up his alley, all told, and given the year that 2017 has shaped up to be, I was very much looking forward to this one.

Things Havoc disliked: So... let's get a few things straight.

I am aware of my reputation, as both a film critic and a historian, for getting a trifle... dogmatic when it comes to "historical" films like The Eagle, or The Flowers of War, or even Dallas Buyer's Club, and of flying off the handle into epochal rants concerning how a bad film has mutilated history, or how the critics of a good one are attempting to do so. With Dunkirk being such a historical film, I can appreciate the expectation that some of my readers have that such a rant, one way or the other, is soon to forthcome, and wish to allay those fears. For while I do have certain quibbles with the history portrayed in Nolan's Dunkirk, they are, for the most part, reasonably minor, and unimportant to the overall question of the film's quality, nor do I intend to stand upon soapboxes and direct fire and thunder at those who have misinterpreted the historical context of the film in making their own criticisms, as I so famously did to Roger Ebert's bafflingly ignorant assertion that Zhang Yimou was in the habit of whitewashing his own films. Cognizant as I am of the fact that most of my audience are not as obsessive about historical questions, I wish to assure readers that I shall not be using this time we have together to rant deliriously about history, real or imagined, within the context of this film.

I shall instead be ranting deliriously about everything else, because Dunkirk fucking SUCKS.

Yes, you heard me correctly, Dunkirk sucks, in fact it sucks with tremendous vigor and velocity, an ugly, tone-deaf, ineptly-produced calamity of a film that stands up to neither logical thought nor emotional judgment. It is all of Christopher Nolan's worst habits rolled into one and combined with new, fresh, entirely unexpected bad habits which he has manifested solely for the purpose of rendering this film an unwatchable, boring mess. The problem here is not that Nolan is an untalented filmmaker, nor that, as a war film, it is highly unconventional (Nolan himself has insisted that it is not a war film, but a "suspense" film). The problem is that whatever you choose to call it, it is one of the most boring movies imaginable, an achievement of some note given that the subject of the film is, theoretically at least, a battle involving hundreds of aircraft, thousands of ships, and hundreds of thousands of men. Except of course that Dunkirk is not about this battle nor the masses of men and machines that fought in it, but about a small handful of characters who do nothing but stare into the middle distance for a minor eternity while the soundtrack attempts to convince you to engage in trepanation by means of your soda straw.

God, where do I even start...

Dunkirk is a film built around three intertwining narratives, that of a soldier attempting to escape France and return to England, an elderly yachtsman called forth to save the British sailors so-trapped, and a fighter pilot engaging in combat over the Channel. All three of these narratives take place on different time-scales, the soldier's ordeal lasts a full week, the sailor's a single dodgy day, and the pilot's an excitement-filled hour. The film interweaves the various threads together in a tangled web, along the lines of better films like Cloud Atlas, but unlike these, the material for each storyline is unevenly applied. The soldiers must escape death some dozen different times, generally through repetitions of the formula "get on boat, boat sinks, get on other boat", something the movie does so many times that it begins to resemble outtakes from Waterworld. The pilots, however, have nothing whatsoever to do for most of the runtime, resulting in entire scenes where a pilot, caught between a dwindling fuel tank and a German bomber attacking a defenseless ship, will resolve their dilemma by looking at the fuel gauge, then the bomber, then the fuel gauge, then the bomber, then the fuel gauge, then the bomber, then the fuel gauge, then the bomber, before the movie mercifully cuts away to another storyline for a few minutes. Don't worry though, when we return to the pilot after several days have passed for the rest of the cast, he will be looking at the fuel gauge, then the bomber, then the fuel gauge, then the bomber, then the fuel gauge, then the bomber, then the fuel gauge...

Seriously, the above sequence repeats itself five times.

But it's not just the macro-editing of the film that's the problem, it's everything. The score, made by legendary film composer Hans Zimmer, who has worked with Nolan on most of his best films and scored everything from Gladiator to The Lion King, is one of the most incompetent pieces of music I've ever experienced in or out of a theater. Not only is it entirely comprised of the same sort of atonal electro-music that Under the Skin tried to use to make whatever its point was, but it does not vary, either in "intensity" or tone, from the beginning of the film to the end of it. Action scenes, danger scenes, quiet scenes of soldiers staring out to sea, heroic scenes where the cavalry finally arrives, all of them are set to the same formless mass of abstract electronica, with the result that the film has no emotional depth, and scenes that are intended to be scary, claustrophobic, or suspenseful, fall completely flat tonally. Not that they wouldn't even without the score, as the film manages to take the massive scope of the Battle of Dunkirk and turn it into a cross between a Vincent Gallo film and a Calvin Klein ad. Hundreds of thousands of men fought in the Battle of Dunkirk. Thousands of ships and aircraft participated. Yet the entire film comprises perhaps five aircraft, half a dozen ships, and maybe a couple hundred extras at the most. This isn't some stylistic attempt to humanize the battle by restricting the perspective to that of a few men, this is the High School play version of Dunkirk. Tiny knots of huddled men stand dwarfed by the enormous, empty beaches that surround them, all while a couple of officers sit on a pier and wonder out loud if a ship might come for them today, or perhaps tomorrow. Once in a long while, a single German bomber will appear out of a clear, empty sky, and drop a single bomb, whereupon the several dozen men trapped in France will fling themselves to the ground in terror, before rising anew and resuming their long, lonely wait. I knew that I said I wasn't going to complain about the historicity of the events in the film, but if the movie is attempting to convince us that these events are small pieces of a much greater whole, it utterly and completely fails to do so. At one point, one of our heroes traverses the distance between the front lines of the German assault force and the beaches where he will spend the next eight or ten days in less than thirty seconds. I have literally fought paintball matches that took place in larger canvasses than this film conjures up for one of the greatest battles of the 20th century.

I could speak here of the actors, but they truly do get lost in the mess, whether it's people I adore, like Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branaugh, Cillian Murphy, or Mark Rylance, or people I've never seen before, such as the bulk of the faceless, characterless soldiers who stare into the distance in this film in the hopes that someone will remember to give them something to do. Hardy, one of my favorite actors working, spends the entire movie hidden behind an oxygen mask, speaking in monotones and staring at fuel gauges (then bombers, then fuel gauges...), while Branaugh has literally nothing to do except exposit information to the audience about the tremendous scale and epic scope of the raging battle taking place off-screen, which we are expected to take his word on, I suppose. The other soldiers meanwhile, so nondescript that I absolutely lost track of which one was our main character, do nothing except board ships, jump off said ships, sit on the beaches staring at the waves, and act stupidly, such as a sterling moment late in the film where desperate soldiers demand that one of their number jump overboard, so as to lighten a ship's load enough to make it off the beach, heedless of the fact that they are currently standing in four feet of water within the ship's hold, water which outweighs the lot of them by a factor of twenty or so.

And this is a film that critics are calling one of the greatest war movies ever made?!

Final thoughts:   Even by the standards of the disaster that was Interstellar, Dunkirk is a gruesome misfire, a truly awful film that, among other things, manages to do what even Red Tails did not, and render dogfights boring. I am well aware of Nolan's stated intention of making a non-war war film, a movie that was more suspense than action and one relying entirely on practical effects, but whatever his intentions, the resulting film is terrible on every level you measure it by, a bad war film, a bad suspense film, a bad historical film, and a very bad film in general. I am well aware that this review stands in stark contrast to the universal acclaim with which Dunkirk has been greeted, acclaim which utterly mystifies me, even when I try and put on my professional critics' hat and see the movie through the lens of people paid to tell you about how their taste is superior to yours. The film's incredibly short run-time (106 minutes for a film that, despite what Nolan wants to claim, was plainly intended at least in part as a war epic), subdivided into three awkwardly-assembled plot threads of uneven length, does not stop the final product from feeling about nine hours long, and if there's any artistic, or god help us, political point to be made in the decision to make the least warlike war film ever, I have completely failed to discover it, either during the viewing or in my research since. It is, in short, a dismal failure of a movie, certainly one of the worst that the otherwise strong cinema calendar of 2017 has offered us.

I've defended Christopher Nolan many times in conversation and in these reviews, pardoning his flaws as a filmmaker, his weak characters and basic emotions, because of his evident strengths of concept and plot. It was for this reason that I forgave him for the unreserved mess that was Interstellar, and for this reason that I was excited to see what he would do with a war film like Dunkirk. Having now discovered the answer to that mystery, I have to confess that, despite all the love I bear Nolan's Dark Knight series and Inception, I will be taking a very long, hard look at any work he does in the future before deciding that it's worth a gamble, as, no matter how often I go see films, no schedule is generous enough to make tolerating crap like this acceptable.

Dunkirk, in short, should be thrown unceremoniously into the sea.

Final Score:  3.5/10

Next Time:  Let the inevitable ripoffs of John Wick begin!

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