Dunkirk is fine.
Judging by the critical reception, though, you'd expect it to be extraordinary. By far the best-reviewed wide-release movie of the year so far, it has a score of 92% at Rotten Tomatoes, and an even higher score (which is very unusual) of 94 at MetaCritic. It seems like everyone and their mother likes this movie, and the few outliers are expected to be mere contrarians.
I'm not quite a contrarian: there is much to like about this movie. I'm just not going to tell you it's great. I'm not even going to tell you there's any pressing need for you to pay for a ticket to see it in the theatre. Dunkirk is not offered in 3D -- thankfully -- but it is available at IMAX theatres, which comes with its own price premiums, and I can tell you there is no need to waste money on that.
If by chance you don't know, Dunkirk is the name of the beach where over 300,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated from the north of France in 1940. This was a year and a half before the U.S. could be bothered to get involved in World War II thanks to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The stories yet to be told about the second World War remain vast, but writer-director Christopher Nolan takes a comparatively micro view of this single military operation.
Much has been made of how much tension there is in Dunkirk, but the thing is, that's nearly all its got. Its greatest asset, which is mostly what creates the tension, is in its editing. In true Nolan style, a while into the film, you realize you're seeing different plot puzzle pieces fit together. The story's focus is four-pronged: three different boats or ships, and a couple of fighter planes, and how they all eventually intersect. There is indeed something undeniably satisfying about how all of these things eventually fit together.
Being rated PG-13, though, there's a certain lack of gritty realism. This, combined with a months-long marketing campaign positioning Dunkirk in a slightly misleading way as a Summer Event Movie, made me expect something a little more action-oriented, with Nolan's involvement creating an added expectation of cinematic artfulness. There are elements of both, but Nolan never quite goes the distance on either front.
There's plenty of pointed chaos, to be sure. But there's something essential missing from Dunkirk, and it is character development. It has almost none. This is more of a portrait of this evacuation, focusing on just a few people, but the camera simply follows them around through harrowing situations more than it picks up on anything in the way of individual conflicts. There's a certain emotional heft a movie like this should have, and Dunkirk lacks it.
It's certainly gripping, though. Although it barely falls short of qualifying as an action movie, there's plenty of action in it. The cast includes a couple of Nolan regulars: Tom Hardy as one of the fighter pilots; Cillian Murphy as a shell shocked soldier rescued from a capsized boat. It also features Kenneth Branagh and James D'Arcy as officers who do little more than walk around staring at everything happening on the beach. And perhaps most famously, Harry Styles is featured among the group of young soldiers just desperately trying to find their way onto one of the boats.
None of them talk much. The actor who gets the most screen time, Mark Rylance as the civilian boat captain taking his teenage son and young friend out to take part in the evacuation, also gets the most lines, and even that's not a whole lot. For the most part, it's boats and planes, bombs and explosions, capsizing and nose diving, all set to a score that clearly evokes a ticking clock.
There's a strange dichotomy to Dunkirk. It's impossible to be bored watching this movie, but it's also impossible to think of it as a truly accurate portrayal of what went on in the real-life event. It's still very much a Hollywood movie, clever in subtle ways but pointedly clever nonetheless. Unlike, say, the truly graphic extended opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, it has less to say about the horrors of war than about how a director with a certain amount of power can turn war into ultimately inconsequential art. Because realistically, years from now, while people will still be talking about the best war movies ever made, no one will still be talking about Dunkirk.