Thursday, 3 August 2017


Generally speaking, I’m a fan of Christopher Nolan’s work. So much so, that I have given half of his films **** (and the rest ***+). Few directors have a better record. And Nolan’s new film has been getting nothing but rave reviews, including **** from all of my favourite critics. And I love Nolan’s disdain for 3D (which of course I share). Despite all of that, my expectations were quite low going in to see Dunkirk. I just had a bad feeling about this one. These feelings are rarely mistaken.

Let’s get one thing out of the way before I begin sharing my thoughts. My opinion of Dunkirk has little to do with the fact that it is a war film and that I have little use for war films (as opposed to anti-war films, of which there are numerous examples among my favourite 150 films). It’s true that Dunkirk is a war film, but the only fighting by the Allies in this film is by way of two planes shooting at a few others. There’s little there (or in the war setting) to upset me, other than my utter disagreement with the assumption made by almost all WWII films that no matter how evil war may be, this was a war that had to be fought.

Having said that, my opinion of Dunkirk has a lot to do with the fact that it is set during WWII. Like War for the Planet of the Apes, this war story is not so much about war as it is about survival during a war. The fact that this survival adventure film takes place during WWII is critical to its story and thus does influence my opinion. The fact that Dunkirk is an essentially nonstop action film has an even greater influence.

By now, you are no doubt getting the vibe that I did not appreciate Dunkirk as much as most (if not all) major critics and the vast majority of viewers did. Unfortunately, that vibe is correct. It is, in fact, my least favourite of all of Nolan’s films and, for the life of me, I can’t understand why the critics loved it so much.

Oh, the filmmaking is in many ways superb. The flow of the action, the shooting of the action, the calibre of the acting (too many to name), the cinematography, Hans Zimmer’s overwhelming score (which too often drowned out the dialogue, little as there was of it); all of these are examples of filmmaking at its finest. And I thought the device of weaving together three stories taking place in very different time frames worked marvellously. And there was a scene on the small boat that was as profound and moving as any I have seen in years. 

And I have no disagreement at all with the first paragraph of Jeremy Clarke’s review, which I will quote here: “British filmmaker Christopher Nolan … has created a complex and multilayered film that cleverly interweaves three separate narrative strands: 1) on land over a week a young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) after he arrives alone at Dunkirk beach and falls in with others … ; 2) on sea over a day a small, requisitioned, civilian boat (crew: three) go to bring home trapped combatants; and 3) in the air over an hour three Spitfires fly a sortie. Nolan is fascinated by time and runs these in parallel so that an incident partly revealed in one strand is later retold in another revealing more. There’s a constant sense of the clock ticking differently in the three time frames: mind-bending and exhilarating stuff.” (see Jeremy’s full review, which I don’t really disagree with, though he loved the film, here:

Yes, mind-bending and exhilarating stuff, to be sure, but I need more than that. Specifically, I need more than just great action with virtually no character development or character context (thus no need for me to even identify their individual stories). There was almost no dramatic story to Dunkirk at all. It was just this breathtaking excerpt from one week/day/hour of WWII and, regardless of how amazing that week/day/hour was, it’s nowhere near enough for me. Perhaps if I believed that WWII was a war that needed to be fought and that the world is a better place as a result, my feelings would have been different. As it was, with the exception of one air force pilot, there aren’t even any real war heroes in the film (though there is a lot of heroism on display). Just hundreds of thousands of soldiers trying to retreat/survive to fight another day. How many of those soldiers subsequently died in that future fighting, I wonder.

The bottom line for me is that action bores me, and with little else besides action to keep me entertained, it wasn’t really worth the price of admission for me. I will give Dunkirk ***. My mug is up but I remain confused about what makes so many of this decade’s action films so praiseworthy. [See my next review for a violent action film that I found much more compelling and entertaining than Dunkirk.] 


  1. I would be very interested in knowing more about your perspective that WW2 wasn't a war that needed to be fought. Not wanting to debate, just would love to know more about that perspective in the way it relates to your review (since it's a much different POV than mine - I can't imagine how else Hitler could've been stopped except by force, and I do admire heroism displayed in some WW2 films). I've enjoyed many of your reviews, by the way. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Joel. I preached on this topic just a week ago. In a nutshell, I would argue that a closer look at what was really going on in the world of the 30's and 40's shows that WWII was not a war fought simply to stop Hitler and his atrocities. On the contrary: Hitler could have been stopped many times and in many ways before the war started (without violence); recently declassified documents show that the U.S. and UK could have ended the war in 1942 (and saved millions of Jews) had they wanted to (they wanted to decimate the Soviet Union instead); and the results of the war (especially the creation of a world-dominating American empire) have arguably resulted in more deaths, atrocities and suffering (including the effects of climate change) than would have resulted from a German victory in WWII.

  2. I was gripped by the 3 vignettes and interested by responses from some of the 90-year-old Dunkirk vets who attended the Premier - that it captured a lot of the feelings they had about that event, except that it was in fact a lot quieter!

    Perhaps it's always a flaw of 'historical' movies that major aspects get left out. I'm thinking of the 1,000s of French who died defending those on the beaches. Some reports put their numbers as high as 90,000 compared to the 3,500 British troops who died during the evacuations. Others have also commented about how 'white' the cast was despite there being significant numbers of other races present.