Christopher Nolan's new movie Dunkirk has opened to rave reviews and, given its genre, impressive box office numbers. Christian Tesfaye was far less impressed, awarding the flick 7 out of 10 stars.
I believe I have grown as a film enthusiast. My tastes have changed; I am not as keen on certain movies I used to love and directors I appreciated. Advocates of hard cinema are pulling me to their side, and I am having a difficult time relating to, not just mainstream audiences, but mainstream critics too.
I used to hold Christopher Nolan in great awe: the director behind some of the most commercial and critical movies of our time. No one else since Steven Spielberg has been able to make movies that both critics and audiences agree on. His movies, sited for their narrative complexity and dark tone, changed the face of commercial filmmaking in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
Nonetheless, I am having second thoughts. Not long ago, I decided to give some of his films another go. While I found some of them quite exhilarating, I found others somewhat overrated, and in some cases dated.
The greatest Nolan movie – the most Nolan-esque, if I may say so – was the filmmaker’s debut. Memento starred Guy Pearce as a man hunting his wife’s killer, the only hitch being that he has anterograde amnesia, the inability to make new memories. To put the audience in the same boat with the protagonist, Nolan narrates the story backwards. It is the perfect modernist film noir. Memento has grey characters all around, a femme fatale and a plot that is impossible to unravel.
Nolan’s next film, Insomnia, was good, but also boring. It moves at a snail’s pace. Coming right after Memento, it was also an unsatisfactory mystery. To this day, it remains the director’s least recognized movie.
Batman Begins, Nolan’s third, was one of the first superhero movies that decided to go dark. Nolan goes to great length to give the genre credence. He frames Batman not as a caped hero but as a symbol Bruce Wayne has to uphold in order to bring peace to Gotham city. It was a good enough movie, but ended up hitting the usual comic book dead ends.
The Prestige, following a year later, was fun but had a great ugly flaw. The movie plays as thriller until a big reveal at the end where we find that the movie has been science fiction all along. But Nolan did not dawdle on The Prestige very long, he moved on to one of the most iconic movies of the 2000s, The Dark Knight.
The Dark Knight was Batman Begins on steroids. It was a very effective superhero flick that hit all the right notes a satisfying action movie is supposed to hit. The battle between Batman and his most adamant enemy, the Joker, was more psychological than physical, giving the film credence over comic book frivolity.
And then there was Inception, a movie that apparently blew everyone’s mind. I appreciated the plot, it was unique, but found the characters too one dimensional. The film, to be honest, is meaningless; it is lost in its own world, the rules and regulations of “incepting” someone’s mind. But Inception turned out to be a far better movie than what followed. The Dark Knight Rises was a great disappointment, and Interstellar too weepy.
Dunkirk does not seem like a Nolan movie. It is the first film he has ever made that does not concern itself with a single character and the fussiness of his reality. It documents the events of the Miracle of Dunkirk during World War II from the sea, the land and the air.
In the French port of Dunkirk, a rough four hundred thousand Allied men are stranded under constant fire by the Germans. They are exhausted and have little ammunition to defend themselves with. For the Germans, they are easy picking, especially by air. Winston Churchill, the British prime minister at the time, hoped to evacuate 30 thousand Britons at best.
In one of the most unbelievable military feats of all time, more than three hundred thousand men were evacuated by sea. The Miracle of Dunkirk occurred due to valiant British civilians who sailed from the United Kingdom by boat to help in the evacuation effort and Hitler’s decision to pull back his troops from the front.
Why Hitler hesitated to finish off the already exhausted British and French army is still unknown and has been a point of contention for historians ever since. Many believe it is one of the major reasons for the Axis losing the war, right up there with his other foolhardy decision to invade Russia. Those hundreds of thousands of men lived to fight another day.
Nolan employs certain narrative approaches to distinguish himself from other war movies. For instance, we never get to see a single German fighter throughout the movie, only the shots they fire and the torpedoes they launch. The story is also narrated from three different perspectives, all of them converging in the finale.
But I failed to see why the film is so acclaimed. The review aggregator site Metacritic has awarded Dunkirk 96pc, eight points higher than Wes Anderson’s brilliant The Grand Budapest Hotel. I applaud Nolan’s decision to shoot the film on celluloid and the choice of using very little dialogue so that audiences focus more on the visuals. But the story is too average, the cinematography too typical and the acting subdued. If Dunkirk is really as good a movie as they say it is, then I am a monkey’s uncle.
More importantly, Dunkirk repeats the offences of all war movies, even the great ones, like The Thin Red Line and Apocalypse Now. In trying to find the right shots, frames and sequences, it ends up making war picturesque. War should be made to look agonizing, unthinkable, not technically complex. The only correct war movie to date is Come and See, where war is nothing more exciting than horror.
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