I hate to break it to all you Christopher Nolan devotees out there, but the hubbub surrounding the writer-director's latest is the critical equivalent of fake news. Take Dunkirk's ratings on Metacritic, for example. I haven't seen so many 100s since Josh Brolin opened that briefcase in No Country for Old Men.
I'm flummoxed by the almost unanimously rapturous reception this film has gotten. "A masterpiece," raved the Atlantic. "A tour de force," gushed the New York Times. "Bravura," hailed Variety. "A masterpiece," raved Time with a conspicuous lack of originality.
Not to mention prose this purple: "Sometimes, cosmically, the right movie arrives at just the right time." Stephanie Zacharek wrote that. "Mr. Nolan's unyielding emphasis on the soldiers ... blurs history even as it brings the present and its wars startlingly into view." Manohla Dargis wrote that. Whatever it means. "Take away the film's prismatic structure and this could be a classic war picture for the likes of Lee Marvin or John Wayne." Peter Debruge wrote that. Finally, someone with a clue.
Because, cosmically, what Nolan has made is a movie about a little-known chapter in the Second World War. The Miracle of Dunkirk, as it's affectionately known by the British, took place in the spring of 1940, after the Nazis had backed Allied forces onto the shores of northern France. More than 400,000 soldiers were pinned down on the beach, easy pickings for German planes, and not a single warship would be sent for them. England was next on Hitler's list, so Churchill needed every last destroyer to defend the homeland.
Hence Operation Dynamo. The Brits sent out a call to civilians. Their response led to one of the most heroic rescue missions in history, a flotilla of roughly 700 small fishing and pleasure boats whose owners risked their lives to cross the English Channel and bring those soldiers home.
So, of course, this is a bracing war story. And, of course, Nolan mines the material for the kind of elements that make war stories bracing. He sections his narrative into three threads — events unfolding on the beach, on the sea and in the air. And, of course, there's action to spare everywhere.
Boys waiting in long queues to board Royal Navy no-shows are bombed to bits. Boys aboard one British troop carrier after another die horrific deep-sea deaths courtesy of U-boats lurking off shore. And, hundreds of feet above, Spitfire pilots perform dazzling acts of courage. You know, like the acts of courage we've been watching in World War II movies ever since World War II.
So, how do you make a trippy art film out of traditional war-picture tropes? You scramble the story's timeline, of course. This is the "prismatic structure" that Debruge alluded to. Dunkirk makes a fairly standard "war is hell" statement. It just appears to say more because Nolan went all William S. Burroughs and played cut-up with his script. I'm surprised so many reviewers were duped.
Much has been made of the filmmaker's decision to shoot in the old-fashioned 70mm so well suited for IMAX, but how excited are we supposed to get? Vermont is the only state in New England not to have a single IMAX screen. Alabama and Tennessee each have six. Pakistan has one. Lebanon, too — in a mall!
Don't get me wrong. There are reasons to see Dunkirk (chief among them Mark Rylance as a family man quietly doing his part). Just nowhere near as many as the media would have you believe.