Dunkirk is an audio visual treat but with some major problems
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Christopher Nolan can do no wrong, or at least that’s the media perception, and it’s funny as to when perceptions are formed, it literally changes the way one sees things. Within this context comes ‘Dunkirk’. A film shot on 70mm IMAX Format aiming to be an audio/visual spectacle. It definitely is an aural/visual splendour for sure. Right from the opening scene of a group of ‘Allied’ soldiers being taken apart by the faceless Axis daemons, it sets the tone for things to come. The sound design here is impeccable, the moment you hear the first gun shot, you know as a matter of fact that one is in for a sensory treat. But on other fronts, the film is problematic, and deeply so.

Mr Nolan throughout his brilliant filmography has always played with time, space and the very linearity of things, he has constantly experimented with it. Memento used a reverse revelation of information in order to not only generate suspense but also to capture the mind space of the lead character for whom despite things occurring beforehand, every piece of information was new and thus unsettling. In Inception, he played with the ideas of as to how the mind perceives time, thus compressing and stretching ‘it’ at multiple dreamlike levels.

In both these cases, the nonlinearity of things is not just a gimmick, but rather, is absolutely essential to the core of the film along with its plot. In Dunkirk, he has employed much of the same trickery. The story is simple (and it’s not a spoiler). Allied Soldiers are stranded on the beach of Dunkirk, with Axis powers ripping them apart one by one. The only evacuation option is via the sea but because of the shallow shores, the big ships cannot come to them, thus the soldiers have built a supremely small and narrow pathway which leads them to deep water where the ships are, effectively leading to a fragile bottleneck. In order to solve this problem, small civilian vassals are called upon to help expedite the matter and carry the soldiers. In order to aid this operation, the Allied powers send three RAF fighters to assist them through the procedure.

Simple enough, but with most things Nolan, a simple set of events have been presented in a non-linear manner because of which the film constantly jumps between past, present and future events. The rationale behind this is to purposely give the audience a sense of disconnect with the characters. The aim is to focus purely on the act of war and the fruitlessness of it. The moment one starts getting comfortable with the characters in a scene, Wham! A cut to a totally different time/space, which in turn, purposely disorients the audience. The only problem with this approach is that it doesn’t add to anything useful. It only serves to confuse the audience. It is not as if all the pieces add up to reveal something more. The payoff for using such a treatment of time is just not there, and thus as a result, this endeavour feels supremely gimmicky. Which leads me to the most important point – Lack of meaningful characterisation and drama.

Characterisation in Nolan’s films is most of the time, not the strongest suit, which is fine. Characters in his movies generally fall subservient to the larger philosophical underpinnings of the story. It’s generally the underlined thematics of the film which drives it forward. The Dark Knight explored chaos theory, the theme of structure vs anarchy. Interstellar dealt with themes of faith and science, the value of artists/pure sciences in the capital oriented world of today, amongst others. In Dunkirk’s case, however, the themes themselves are simplistic and weak. War is bad, war is futile and war is mindless. Everything from the narrative structure, to the general sense of detachment towards the characters, to the sound design, try to get this point across. Which works. One gets the fact that war is futile, and one gets it quite early on. But there is nothing more. One has to understand the fact that unlike the themes of his previous films, which generally, prior to the movie, had never entered the realm of popular discourse, the theme of ‘war is bad’ has been done to death. Thus, people are already acquainted with it. After the first 40-50 minutes, the film continuously harps upon it, ultimately rendering it boring.

Add the fact that most of the scenes occur in a non-linear fashion with no big payoff (physical or psychological) at the end, it leads to a certain lack of drama. Make no mistake, some of the set pieces are well done, and the intimacy of the scenes is frightening. But nothing comes even close (in terms of drama) to the gut-wrenching Omaha Beach landing scene in Saving Private Ryan. Also, as mentioned, due to its nonlinear structure, no scene adds up to a bigger picture. What was left are a bunch of scenes which perfectly capture the madness of war, but are devoid of any drama whatsoever?

Moreover, why is a film, which really wants to capture the brutality and mindlessness of war, rated PG13? Lack of blood and the general brutality associated with it is sorely missed. One can say that the film tries to capture the psychological trauma of war, but then I say that’s horse shit - Physical and psychological trauma goes hand in hand. I would also like to add that, for a film which wants to ponder upon the futile nature of war, Dunkirk has clearly taken sides of the British forces. The faces of Axis soldiers (much like the storm troopers in Star Wars) are never shown even once. The British, historically have been one of the most brutal countries in the world and have literally waged war every place imaginable. World War II, no matter how righteous, was still a war nonetheless, where the ‘Great’ British forces, forced troops from their colonised countries to fight for them. For a film to truly adhere to its theme, it should have criticised the act of war itself instead of taking sides. War is bad because the Germans did so!

Going by the by-lines circulating on social media about this movie, however, proves my theory of critics somehow holding ‘realism’ on a pedestal as opposed to formalism (https://youtu.be/pxuK4NQ2NHk). Good cinema it seems is realistic cinema. The by-lines seem exaggerated at best, but then beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder I guess, and this beholder felt the movie was ‘flat’.

The popular reaction to this film seems like the chapter from The Fountain Head involving the play ‘No Skin off my Ass’, where one had a play devoid of any structure but was touted to be an avant-garde masterpiece by popular media and everyone agreed to it in the fear of being mocked upon.

Dunkirk is not a bad film at all. The first viewing is perfectly serviceable. However, something seems amiss. The gimmicky nonlinear structure along with the lack of compelling characters and drama turns out to be this movie’s Achilles’s heel. Watch the film, form your own opinion but for Christ sake, don’t get swayed by the hype machine.

This article has been contributed by Sushant Mishra who is a Mumbai-based filmmaker.