Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk, just came out on pay-per-view streaming and DVD and I had the chance to watch it. At under two hours it is short for a Nolan movie, and it plays with time, perception, point of view, and drowning imagery like many of Nolan’s past films (Memento, The Prestige, Interstellar, and The Dark Knight trilogy). Avclub.com had glowing things to say about it … so why did it leave me feeling kind of cold and unfulfilled?
Dunkirk tells the story of the evacuation of almost 300,000 surrounded British soldiers from a French beach near Belgium, mostly by civilian boats at great personal risk. There are three points of view that dominate the film. First, there is the plight of a babyfaced private (Fionn Whitehead) and his mysterious, mostly mute accidental companion (Damien Bonnard), which plays out over a week as they try in vain to board an outbound ship, nearly drowning repeatedly. Then there’s one Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), one of the courageous small-boat captains who stepped up in his nation’s time of need and put-putted the 30 miles across the channel, with his son and a local boy as his only back-up, to rescue stranded soldiers from a war zone. This story plays out over a day. Finally, there’s the one-hour aerial drama of a spitfire pilot attempting to shoot down the enemy aircraft who keep bombing the escape vessels. The lead pilot is played by Tom Hardy, the biggest contemporary star in the film (unless you count One Direction singer Harry Styles in a supporting role in the beach plotline) – and yet Hardy spends most of the film with that million-dollar face behind a high-altitude respirator and aviation goggles.
Though land, sea, and air plotlines span different times, they are intercut with each other and converge in time as the climax approaches. This disjointed chronology allows you to glimpse the future or the past of various characters – a shellshocked cast-away in the sea plotline who emerges as an officer weighed down by impossible responsibility in the land plotline; a distinctive ship in distress glimpsed from the air that becomes a key vessel for our heroes on the ground. It’s interesting, but I don’t know that the film would have been less interesting without it. The plot logic doesn’t hinge on the jumbled chronology the way it did in Memento or Interstellar.
The End of the Cold Nolan? Or the Beginning?
The script is light on dialogue. Our attention is perhaps meant to be focused on the raw acts of technical achievement, the credentials for which Nolan’s resume speaks for itself. The characters are mostly a blank slate; a lot of weight is placed on pensive close-ups of their faces as they struggle to process the shit-show they just survived. The implication seems to be “Who cares if Whitehead’s character struggled in grammar school; if Rylance’s character has a fraught relationship with his son; if Hardy’s character is estranged from his wife …. set against such sweeping drama, such global tragedy, what matters the fragile foibles of our individual lives?
What indeed. The missing piece is that we watch movies as the individuals we are, not as the culture or nation we belong to.
Sure, each of our heroes get a “save-the-cat” moment. That’s screenwriting jargon for a moment when early in the screenplay our protagonist, however flawed or antiheroic they might ultimately be, saves a cat from a tree or does something else unambiguously relatable and admirable, to make the audience care about his/her fate. For example, Whitehead stands up for Bonnard to his compatriots, refusing to leave him to certain death when a mundane but crucial secret about Bonnard’s past is revealed that causes the other soldiers to turn on him.
This speaks to the truth that sure, sweeping mass-casualty events are dramatic in their own right, but to really care about it, we need to get granular – drill down to one or two people set against the tragedy, people we can relate to and experience it through one set of eyes.
That’s why James Cameron made a movie about two star-crossed lovers, rather than filming 90 minutes of a boat sinking and extras drowning. It’s why Ed Zwick made a film about a smuggler cynically helping a distressed father only to learn something about the value of human life along the way – rather than just filming 90 minutes of boy soldiers shooting each other.
It might be hacky, it might be predictable, it might be overdone. I don’t blame Avclub.com reviewers, who have to watch and review every piece of trash Hollywood dumps on the public, for being relieved to see a filmmaker take a different approach.
But I’ve always believed that some respect needs to be paid to why these tropes are overdone. The answer is that they speak to something in us universally, and most of us would rather see a hack-job that pulls on our heart, than a technical masterstroke that leaves us cold.
That’s what Dunkirk misses. He’s pulling for pathos in Whithead’s dewey-eyed angst, Rylance’s aw-Dad softness, Hardy’s brio and courage. He wants us to care. But no matter how dewey the eyes, you can’t care about a blank slate.
We need to know about Whitehard’s father, Rylance’s wife, Hardy’s gambling debts. The real person lives in the specifics. They give us something to relate to, to hang onto about our relationships with our own fathers or wives or gambling debts.
Nolan has often been called out for cold, clinical filmmaking, to the point where the emotive sentimentality of Interstellar drew surprised remarks. I never saw it that way. From Memento to The Dark Knight, there was a ton of blood pumping in every Chris Nolan film, because the characters were so well-drawn that you couldn’t help but care about them, even when they were being bastards.
Dunkirk vs. Inception
I’m aware that Leonardo DiCaprio is the star of the two films I referenced above (Titanic and Blood Diamond), and I am building to something with all of this: my revisit of Inception, Nolan’s tour-de-force film starring DiCaprio as a professional dream-hacker. Alongside The Dark Knight, Inception stands as Nolan’s current best chance of adding a genuine classic to the canon, even if Dunkirk wins Oscars. It will be remembered as a ground-breaking, rip-roaring scifi/action original that set a new standard for both special effects and immersive world-building.
Inception also seems like Exhibit A of the Case of the Cold Nolan. The heroes are unsentimental career criminals, clipped in their professionalism and merciless in their expectation of each other. It’s like Ocean’s Eleven but without the funny. Hans Zimmer’s equally groundbreaking music score for the film is breathtaking, and yet it builds its most memorable themes in jarring, off-putting diminished scales. That the score is so catchy and memorable within this mode is a feat in itself.
But looks can be deceiving. The movie’s convoluted plot and mostly at-par action set pieces would not work nearly as well if Inception were not also a masterpiece of character-craft.
We get as great a backstory as you could want for DiCaprio’s protagonist, Cobb. The loss of his wife, his framing for a grievous crime, and forced separation from his children more than justify us getting on for the ride of desperate chances Cobb takes.
We also get some backstory on Fischer (Cillian Murphy, a Nolan regular like Hardy), the mark for DiCaprio and his band of dream-thieves. Between his unwitting antagonal position and the countenance of an insufferably spoiled brat, Murphy is ripe to be the villain. Yet glimpses into his desperate longing for his father’s love make him unexpectedly relatable, building to the film’s only real moment of emotional catharsis. Lip a-quiver, with the Zimmer score finally dropping into an ionian hook for some good-old-fashioned musical manipulation, Murphy crushes that climax so hard that it’s the only one the film really needs. It’s the titular moment of inception, and the emotional weight Murphy brings to it makes the payoff believable without beating us over the head with it.
That’s another storytelling achievement of Inception – there’s no real villain, other than the clock and the specter of a hostile subconscious. All the characters we get close to are allowed to be complex, with moments of heroism, cowardice, and villainy alike. Take Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe, another repeat-offender for Nolan), ostensibly the “boss” and another potential villain. What possible redeeming value can billionaire power player Saito find in requesting that an illegal and highly-invasive inception be carried out against a competitor? Well, the script confounds us again, giving Saito surprisingly altruistic motives and then turning him into a valuable member of the team. He joins Cobb’s mind-criminals in the dream world to see first-hand that his order is fulfilled, but he also knows that the dream world is Cobb’s domain, not his. Not a dime of his money or influence will save him there if shit hits the fan – which it does, to Saito’s grave peril. As we build to the climax, Saito ultimately finds himself taking orders from Ariadne (Ellen Page), the most junior member of the team, without complaint.
Fischer has a foil in father-figure Tom Berenger, an actor known for playing hard-bitten assholes. That shoe never drops, though – Berenger never shows himself as anything but a devoted and selfless supporter of Fischer. He’s another island of warmth in what looks like a sea of cold.
It’s still not, though. In Cobb and Fischer, we have specifics of their past to make them relatable. We hear little about the backgrounds of the other characters, but we get contemporary specifics about who these men and women are that turn them into real, well-rounded characters that we can root for. The not-quite-friendly adversarial banter between flamboyant Eames (Hardy) and cold-fish Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt) adds much-needed levity and humor, and their odd-couple pairing is instantly relatable.
Even the specificity of wardrobe can add priceless texture. Arthur’s penchant for three-piece suits and ties, combined with his hyper-serious demeanor, reads as a ploy to be taken seriously as a professional, which can be a challenge when wearing Levitt’s boyish face. Those neckties do a lot of important work in building pathos for Arthur in advance of his breathtaking zero-G fight.
Much has been made of the ambiguous final shot of Inception, and rightly so. I keep coming back to the denoument, though, for the subtle and wordless interplay of the characters. First in the airplane cabin, then in the immigration line, then at baggage claim in the airport, the team must pretend not to know each other, for fear of tipping off Fischer or the authorities. They can’t resist furtive glances at each other, though, as they reflect on what they have just been through and the consequences thereof. Cobb’s final walk through baggage claim, with his glancing goodbye to each team member (even a slightly confused Fischer) is the real end of the movie to me.
You can’t fake that level of character engagement. It sure isn’t cold, and a film feels incomplete without it. Ultimately, Dunkirk is the first Nolan film I’ve seen that does feel a bit cold, regardless of how many times we zoom in on Whitehead’s sad eyes.
What did you think of Dunkirk? How does it compare to Inception?