Garner: ‘Dunkirk’ was just fine. Fight me.

To give a plot synopsis or summary of “Dunkirk” is an ultimately foolish task because it’s history. Any summary I give to you now in the confines of this critique will be overshadowed by some historian or someone else more well-versed on the matter. Furthermore, any take on describing the events that took place on that beach doesn’t really matter, because the film itself isn’t even that concerned with it. Indeed, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is instead focused on the experience of war itself — the pandemonium and chaotic nature of conflict and survival — for better or worse.

I recently had a conversation with a good friend about Dunkirk, and we talked about Nolan’s approach to war films — a genre most great directors eventually tackle — and given my complaints, he asked me a really sobering and striking question: “then why are you let down?” And that’s a question I asked myself a lot during (and after) the movie. I, like many Nolan fans, did a lot of “research” and reading of reviews before watching the film. I knew that it was a disjointed narrative with little to no dialogue/character development, but with instead a focus on suspense, tension, and spectacle. I think my disappointment with it has to do with what I cherish in films and what I want out of a film when I go to the movies. These aspects my friend mentioned (characterization, dialogue, narrative) are the things I love most about movies; the ability to enter another world not just through sight and sound-though those are important elements of any good movie-but through the people inhabiting it is what I look for in any film. Dunkirk doesn’t have that. And while I respect and understand Nolan’s vision for what he tried to create: a harrowing and heart-stopping display of the crucible of war, and I think he succeeded in that respect-it’s not (to me) what makes a movie “great.”

It’s interesting because there are moments of exceptional tension and suspense in Dunkirk, but they all felt ultimately hollow because I had no connection to who it was happening to. And while I think there is an argument for general empathy and humanism, (hollow or not, these are “people” this terrible event is happening to) what makes this different than a gorgeously made reenactment? I’d argue it comes down to character, and the people I’m watching these awful things happen to on screen. Watching “Dunkirk,” it felt like I wasn’t watching young men thrown into the war machine, but plastic army figurines. General Patton once said that, “Wars are fought with weapons, but they are won by men,” and while the context of this review lends to a different interpretation of that quote, to me, the people engaged in this conflict are what makes war films powerful. These are men — young men usually — with fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers, hopes and dreams and failures and embarrassments fighting these terrible battles, and watching these young men and their doomed humanity slouch towards the inevitable is what lends war films their strength.

There’s a scene in “Saving Private Ryan” where Tom Hanks and Matt Damon’s characters sit around and talk about their lives back in America before they take on the Nazi horde encroaching on their little safe haven. Tom Hanks lets the audience know he’s a history teacher, and Matt Damon recalls an incident with his brother and a girl in a barn. For my money that’s the best scene in the film, because behind all the grisly death and tension and horror, it reminds the audience that these are people fighting this war, not just dispensable bodies feeding the meat grinder. And behind all the bells and whistles of “Dunkirk” — the triptych narrative, the manipulation of space and time in a way only Nolan would attempt, the frantic editing and cross-cutting between perspectives — “Dunkirk” doesn’t have that internal structure of character development and narrative that the burden of spectacle must rest upon, and because of that, I ultimately found it lacking.