The Not-Quite-Fatal Flaw of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’

Nolan's latest is an impressive achievement, hobbled slightly by its structural peculiarities.

The opening scene of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk parachutes us into the action, almost literally, as a group of soldiers wander down an abandoned street while taunting leaflets rain down around them. This moment of temporary and borderline-surreal solace is quickly punctured by piercing gunfire around them. Nolan’s film hits the ground running, and rarely stops or looks back – a decidedly different approach for a filmmaker whose (mostly excellent) films lean towards a mode of ornate storytelling and lengthy explanation. In Dunkirk, however, there’s little exposition, or even dialogue; it seems odd to call a 70mm IMAX WWII movie “simple,” or “stripped down,” but here it is. Had he stuck to that mission, Dunkirk might’ve been a masterpiece. But he indulges in a structural flourish that, for this viewer, simply doesn’t play. As ever with Mr. Nolan, your mileage may vary.

But first, let’s examine what works – which is just about everything else. Nolan’s micro-focus on the evacuation of Dunkirk is a masterstroke, putting the viewer into these moments and into this panic, into a mindset where death and destruction arrive in a blink. He spins unbearable tension with ease, and the results are nerve-racking; you’re as itchy as the thousands of soldiers lined up on the beach and on the docks for what looks, increasingly, like the waiting room for a slaughter. His images are stunning; I’m still haunted by the way a desperate soldier chooses to just walk into the sea, and the sheer beauty of a fighter plane’s weightless drift.

I had the good fortune of seeing the film in 70mm IMAX*, and the immersion of the large image is overwhelming – not just in battle, but in the giant close-ups of weathered faces and knitted brows. This is a “big” movie, in size and scope, but not removed from human moments the way too many summer blockbusters are; witness the way Cillian Murphy plays his shellshock, the stuff Tom Hardy is doing with his eyes (and only his eys), the look Mark Rylance and Tom Glynn-Carney exchange when their worst fears are confirmed, the expression on Kenneth Branagh’s face as he watches the Red Cross boat sink, and then announces, with all the confidence he can muster, “Let’s find you another ship.”

These short scenes, often mere bursts of action or emotion, are bridged by a brilliant Hans Zimmer score – and a surprisingly experimental one, more soundscape and noise than conventional melody, stings and ticking clocks contributing to the picture’s stunning urgency. In fact, Nolan takes such pains to create and maintain that momentum technically, it’s odd that he ends up undercutting it with the picture’s peculiar structure. Real talk: it’s difficult for a critic to discuss this element of Dunkirk, and float the notion that it doesn’t quite work, because the easy rebuttal is that one just didn’t “get” it. No one likes to look dumb, but here we go: the film is organized and presented in a way that is, in many ways, confusing for an audience – and that confusion can create a mental distraction, in the moment, from the action onscreen.

Put simply, he tells his story on three fronts – land, air, and sea – in three simultaneous timelines, so he’s intermingling a week on the beach (or, as it’s called here, “the mole”), a day on the sea, and an hour in the air. In each of those timeframes, we stick primarily with a single protagonist: scared solder Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) on the ground; Mr. Dawson (Rylance), a civilian who sets out in his pleasure boat to pick up soldiers; and a pilot (Hardy) in a Royal Air Force plane with a broken fuel gauge. They meet not necessarily by chronology, but by emotional and thematic intersection, so we may see one character (Murphy, for example) recovering from events that we only see later on.

If this sounds confusing and potentially alienating, well, I’m afraid it is. Walking into the movie blind, having only seen the vaguest of teaser trailers, I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time in the film’s first half or so puzzling out the “what” and “why” of the structure, which is not really explained even by the on-screen titles (which give us the place and timeframe, but not how they relate to each other). And look, this may come across immediately to other viewers – particularly having read advance reviews that clarify what Nolan is up to. But even on reflection, I’m still not sure why he chose to tell this story this way, aside from the cynical explanation that Nolan is a bit of an egghead (in the best way, mind you) and was looking for a device that would muss up his rather straightforward telling. And that’s his prerogative. I’m just not sure if it suits the immediacy of the technical style, and of war storytelling in general.

It’s tough to overstate how well literally every other element of Dunkirk lands – how, this complaint aside, it’s a genuinely powerful and emotionally resonant glimpse into the fog of war, told viscerally and masterfully by a top-notch filmmaker in full command of his gifts. But in contemplating its structure, this long-time Nolan defender found himself thinking, for the first time, something I’ve heard far too often from his critics: that maybe Christopher Nolan is just a tad too clever for his own good.

“Dunkirk” is out Friday.

*A few high-falutin’ (New York-based) types on Twitter have insisted that THE ONLY WAY to see the film is in the preferred 70mm IMAX format, which is indeed the choice to make if presented with that choice – but there are only 70mm IMAX screens in 32 states, and many of those states only have one or two such screens, which may be beyond easy driving distance for moviegoers. So yes, see it that way if you can. If you can’t, don’t go beating yourself up about it.