You expect something out of the ordinary from Nolan, and he does deliver, to a certain extent, in Dunkirk. The nonlinear multiple storylines structure is a welcome change, and I hope this gives filmmakers the courage (and inspiration) to use such plot devices to enchant their audience better.
However, I feel the movie did not live up to its potential (and expectations) just because it fails to evoke empathy. Now people talk about how Nolan wanted the movie to be about the event. How he didn’t want to dilute the tension with the characters talking too much and taking our attention away from the event. But this is exactly what prevented me from enjoying the movie.
If you’ve seen Dunkirk (don’t read ahead if you haven’t), picture the scene where the German bombers are dive bombing the beach. The soldiers falling to the ground to protect themselves. The soundtrack, and eerie sound of the bombers getting closer.
Now watch this
That’s from a Band of Brothers episode. It is the story of an army unit, and what they went through in the 2nd World War. It doesn’t focus on one character but tells the story of the company through the eyes of the soldiers in the unit. And through that story, shows the events that they had to go through together.
Band of Brothers had more run time than Dunkirk, so I guess it is a little unfair to make that comparison. So let’s look at another popular scene.
You have not been introduced to any of these characters. There is very little dialogue, and you realise who you have to focus on just by the amount of screen time given to them. And yet, it is able to create so much tension.
That’s where I feel Dunkirk fell flat. I felt nothing when pilots were shot down. I felt nothing when the boats were torpedoed and soldiers drowned or burned alive. I felt nothing when George hit his head and lay dying. I felt nothing when the civilian ships appeared on the horizon. The only time I remotely felt anything was when Farrier ran out of fuel and yet managed to shoot down a German plane.
Dunkirk showed a lot of action. But action without emotion does not make a great movie. People go to movies to experience empathy for the characters in it. People go to movies for catharsis. The stoic performances in Dunkirk didn’t evoke emotion (at least for me), and that’s why I feel it could’ve been a much better movie.