How ‘Dunkirk’s Greatest Strength Is Also Its Greatest Weakness

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a film telling the story of how 340,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated from France back to Britain, is a cinematic experience unlike anything we’ve seen before. The audience is dropped right into the action from film’s opening scene and the tension doesn’t let up until its final moments. Despite being in awe and on the edge of my seat for the duration of Dunkirk, I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing when I left the theatre.

Dunkirk is a film based around spectacle. Nolan’s almost exclusive use of practical effects and the sheer scale of the film make it a technical miracle. The events at Dunkirk itself are the sole focus of the film and, while this makes for a riveting viewing experience, it leaves something to be desired in terms of characterization. By placing more importance on the spectacle of events, the film’s characters are left feeling underdeveloped and, at times, it’s difficult to really care about them. What Nolan has done, essentially, is make a technically brilliant film that, while an incredible spectacle, lacks heart in the form of its characters.

Dunkirk (2017) beach soldiers
‘Dunkirk’ [Credit Warner Bros.]
I have no doubt in my mind that Nolan decided to intentionally forgo character development in favour of spectacle, deciding to make the historical event the central focus of the film. By doing this Nolan was able to showcase war on film in a way that nobody has ever really seen before. Not bogged down by having to give adequate screen time for character backstory and development allowed Nolan to keep Dunkirk to a runtime of about 106 minutes, keeping the film crisply organized and structured.

Even the film’s soundtrack reflects Nolan’s decision to focus less on character and more on spectacle. The always-wonderful Hans Zimmer leans heavily on percussion and the ticking sound of a clock this time around to convey constantly building tension and suspense. Where characters often have their own musical themes in movies that recur throughout the story, Dunkirk uses musical themes to separate events unfolding on the beach, in the air, and on the water.

Dunkirk (2017) still
Nolan used thousands of extras to add another layer of realism to ‘Dunkirk’ [Credit: Warner Bros.]

Without character arcs and evolution, however, a lot of the emotional weight of the film is missing. It’s not as moving when a character dies or is in danger because you’re not emotionally attached to them. Tom Hardy’s character, Farrier, has some of the film’s most intense and visually stunning sequences, but, as a character, he’s not really that interesting (despite Hardy’s incredible ability to act with only his eyes). We, as the audience, don’t really know very much about him and he doesn’t grow or change at all over the course of the film making it difficult to become emotionally invested in him. The same can be said for most of the film’s other characters.

The closest Dunkirk comes to emotional investment is with the storyline involving the father and two sons on the boat who go to aid in the evacuation. Without delving too far into spoiler territory, Peter (played by Tom Glynn-Carney), the older of the two boys who go to help their father, experiences one of the film’s only character arcs. After rescuing a soldier stranded at sea (Cillian Murphy), Peter undergoes a transformation regarding his feelings about the soldier and the effects that war can have on a person. The relationship between Peter and the soldier is the basis for many of the films more emotional moments, but it’s ultimately overshadowed by the spectacle of war.

It’s difficult, then, to evaluate Dunkirk. By using practical effects and the more cumbersome (but higher quality) IMAX cameras, Nolan has made a film focused almost exclusively on experience and realism. These two qualities are both the film’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Nolan wants you to feel what it’s like to be on the beaches of #Dunkirk while the bombs are going off, to be in the skies during a dogfight, or in a ship while its capsizing. The bombs and the bullets do feel real. To keep the experience as real as possible and to not distract too greatly from the Dunkirk Evacuation itself, character development is mostly absent though. This means that the only thing we don’t really feel are any meaningful connections to the film’s protagonists. Basically, I’m torn.

What did you think of Dunkirk? Do you disagree with my take on the film? Be sure to let me know in the comment section below.



Author: Ryan Northrup

I'm recent graduate of McMaster University's history program in Ontario, Canada and I have a passion for a good story.

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