Dunkirk / Christopher Nolan / 2017 / 

Active Ingredients: 70mm presentation; Empathy; Scope and pacing
Side Effects: Overuse of music; visual narration

As you might imagine, Dunkirk looks absolutely stunning in its 70mm IMAX presentation. After a stark black opening title, the first image fills the mammoth screen: soldiers walking down a desolate street as menacing fliers drop from the sky, foreshadowing the bombs to come. The sheer scope of the image, along with its startling clarity and depth of color, took my breath away. And indeed, the bulk of Dunkirk was shot in this format, so the raw visual power of the image doesn’t fade and comes to dominate the theatrical experience of the film.

And yet, I can’t help but feel that the images in Dunkirk are more impressive than they are artful. There are beautiful deep blues, dramatic streaks of sun, and inky nighttime blacks, but the inspiration behind the composition of these shots does not shine so brightly.

I’ve long admired Nolan’s ambition more than I’ve been moved by his art, and elements of Dunkirk crystallized this experience for me. It’s a film clearly defined by its visual scope—projected on true film in a jumbo format—and yet Nolan occasionally stumbles in narrating with his images. Movements into and out of scenes sometimes feel haphazard, as do the chains of events that carry characters around within large setpieces. Dunkirk is a big film and a bold one, often even a beautiful one, but it’s not always an elegant one.

Despite my reservations about the precision of Nolan’s craft, he’s still brought an impactful vision to the screen. The film follows three strands of stories surrounding the allied evacuation of Dunkirk, which represented both a defeat and a triumph of spirit: the experience of desperate soldiers looking for a ride home; a spitfire pilot fighting from above; and unlikelier heroes in the form of civilian yachtsmen ferrying men off the beach. The film’s tripartite structure is a bit unwieldy, but ultimately successful. It keeps tension and excitement high and compresses large swathes of action into a reasonable running time.

In its best moments, Dunkirk is also empathetic and poignant. Nolan intentionally sidesteps typical characterization in favor of propulsive narrative momentum, but the archetypes that populate the film are still accessible and real. This success is no doubt also due in some part to the film’s visual power: it’s hard not to empathize with the desperation of stranded soldiers when we can practically feel the scratchy fabric on their skin and the biting chill of ocean water.

In the end, Dunkirk reveals itself to be concerned not so much with heroism, or even with the horror of war, but with the simple power of survival. The film deals with danger and violence as any war film must, but it doesn’t dwell on brutality. It’s this humane spirit that rescues Dunkirk from some of its well-intentioned missteps. Well, that and a really impressive screen.

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