As Christopher Nolan’s flag began to fly higher and higher in the mid to late 2000s, a few detractors, namely Jim Emerson and David Bordwell, loudly went against the grain, asking why his films tend to over-explain their ideas via dialogue, and why is it that the most basic tenets of directing — utilizing multiple plains of action, elements within the frame inter-acting, off-screen space, etc. — elude him?
With Dunkirk, Nolan has apparently overcome the first issue (this is undeniably his most subtle film), though the second continues to hamper him. In an early scene, as one soldier walks over to another, Nolan presents three close-ups before one man offers the other a canteen, followed by a cut to the soldier taking it and yet another to give it back. Later, a conversation about the tide coming in eventually settles on a two-shot, with two actors facing the camera, but Nolan then inexplicably cuts to a medium close-up as one delivers a line and goes briefly into a shot/reverse-shot with both actors facing the camera before it cuts away with a point-of-view shot and at last resolves on a reaction shot. Throughout the film, it takes Nolan several shots to do what other directors could do in two. Space is also insufficiently established, as Nolan plays fast and loose with basic rules of editing for no apparent reason, and without devising alternative means of orienting the viewer.
But Nolan is not acclaimed for his mastery over the fundamentals of filmmaking: even his biggest fans point more toward big-picture components like structure, storytelling and spectacle than to editing, cinematography or even sound design (an area in which Nolan and his collaborators are admittedly quite skilled). Indeed, he is generally at his best when concocting elaborate conceits that command the narrative and that he can play with on a formal level, as with the entirety of Memento or the climax of Inception. But Dunkirk’s gambit is the least successful one yet. A storyline that begins on the shores of Dunkirk and moves out to sea lasts a full week, one about a civilian boat answering an emergency call to rescue soldiers at Dunkirk lasts a day — and the third (a dogfight involving a pilot with a broken fuel gauge), a mere hour. Nolan has stated that the screenplay has a “precise mathematical structure,” presumably meaning a minute of screen time is seven times as much plot time for the sea storyline as the aerial narrative and 30 times as much for the one that begins on land than the one in the air. It’s hard to imagine who this pleases aside from Nolan himself. In theory, telling three stories that take place over different timespans allows him to spend as much or as little time is necessary, but instead he follows a formula that results in a haphazard rhythm, with shifts feeling arbitrary until the impressive climactic rescue scene. The extent to which anyone revised the screenplay is anybody’s guess, but the multiple dream-levels of Inception obey the same rules and are more adeptly executed.
The lack of grace aside, it is not clear what purpose the structural conceit serves. In Inception, Nolan gave the differing experiences of time a narrative explanation; this time around, there is none, and the thematic justifications are unfulfilling. As a portrait of differing wartime experiences, Dunkirk is too plot-oriented to be successful. Viewers never receive a moment of characters simply interacting with one another, perhaps because they have developed a bond or gone through a near-death experience or are simply at war together. At no point does the film slow-down to allow any details of these differing experiences to come to the forefront. Similarly, the mathematical-but-arrhythmic editing disintegrates any parallels or juxtapositions that could emerge among apparently unalike circumstances; instead, the conceit functions mainly as an auteur’s stamp in an otherwise divergent film.
Structural conceits are ultimately a form of spectacle for Nolan, and as he continues to work in big-budget blockbusters, one must suspect the director is more interested in being Steven Spielberg than the oft-cited Stanley Kubrick. Dunkirk, like its predecessor Interstellar, was shot (and is ideally projected) on IMAX 70mm film. That choice, along with the wide shots of jets streaming through the air and destroyers on the horizon, highlight Nolan’s “big-picture” aims and his desire for grandiosity rather than for clinical precision at the micro-level. The problem, however, is that the fundamentals of filmmaking in Dunkirk are so weak as to mitigate even its bombast. Rather than conveying emotions or depicting events, shots and sequence seem merely to signify them. Not only does it take several shots to convey simple actions, but even action sequences lack deliberation: a drowning man, the last to attempt to escape a sunk ship, barely goes limp before the cut, and a death that should be perhaps the film’s most affecting is glossed over in a way that makes the callback at the end all but meaningless. Even worse, when soldiers under fire in an abandoned boat attempt to plug the bullet holes, Nolan delivers a few shots of them putting their hands over spurts of water but doesn’t focus on the rising level of seawater in the boat, or the strategy’s effectiveness (or lack thereof); Nolan seems to suggest that he tried one thing, then another. Hans Zimmer’s score pounds away all the while, as it does at almost every moment of the film, yet when Nolan finally finds cause for total silence as two rescued soldiers sit across from one another on the train, it lasts no more than a couple seconds, denying the audience an opportunity to let the enormity of the rescue (and the spectacle) sink in. The cumulative effect of these deficiencies is that the impact — emotional and otherwise — is severely diminished.
Despite the apparent contrast, it wouldn’t be quite right to say that Dunkirk errs in its opacity and is therefore an overcorrection for the overly blunt Interstellar, and that if Nolan can just find a happy medium he could get back on track. On the contrary, both shortcomings arise from Nolan’s materialist and conceptual approach to filmmaking. For Nolan, the central conceit is everything, and the film exists to justify it. Memento and Inception generally succeed because Nolan is a gifted enough filmmaker to craft a framework justifying his conceits. Dunkirk, like Interstellar before it, fails not because it errs too far in one direction, but because of the same fundamental flaw — Nolan is not a gifted enough filmmaker to justify these films’ more demanding conceits.
Forrest Cardamenis (@FCardamenis) is a programmer and film critic based in New York. In addition to Vague Visages, his writing has appeared in Brooklyn Magazine and Indiewire, among others.