Dunkirk left me with a rather strange impression on two fronts. It was definitely strange that, after a 100-minute long film, I couldn’t tell you the name of any character in it (and likely neither could others in the theater audience). What’s even stranger is that in the case of Dunkirk, that non-specificity actually empowers the film, and is also why I think director Christopher Nolan was a perfect fit for the movie.
For those unfamiliar, Dunkirk is a recreation of the famous Dunkirk Evacuation of English and French soldiers trapped on the beaches in the aftermath of the Battle of France. The story follows three separate accounts: the first from the perspective of soldiers trapped on the beach over the course of one week, the second onboard one of the many civilian ships called in to evacuate the soldiers over the course of one day, and the third from the perspective of a small squad of Royal Air Force fighter pilots over the course of one hour. The film switches between the three seamlessly as though all were happening in real time, but it’s not until much farther in that events finally synchronize, directly affecting one another.
I mentioned that Nolan felt like a perfect fit, and part of that's derived from his focus on heavy atmosphere. Nolan often creates films in which multiple events happen in tandem, linked by a certain mood or feeling that pervades and resonates throughout the whole. However, his work tends to suffer from the same problem as Zack Snyder's: it allows scenes and moments to overpower characters. Done poorly, this results in Interstellar, a movie draped with haunting set pieces and the grandeur of the universe in which the characters are all but suffocating. Done well, you get Inception or Memento, where characters hold sway and personality but still only manage second fiddle to the magnitude of dreams within dreams or the bursting of layered memories and the abuse of the viewer's trust.
Dunkirk is a little different, though. Instead of trying to display a concept, Nolan displays an event, and his handle on gravitas and the intensity of his atmosphere really drive a constant, impending sense of dread throughout the entire film. This is a great way to portray the overall feeling of war, especially from the losing side's perspective; I never connected strongly with any individual, but by God the film still shook me to the ground at every bombing and with every attack. I still can’t enjoy it quite as much as I'd like, because of its lack of personality, but I would say Dunkirk is definitely worth watching in theaters - if only to let Nolan’s atmosphere take over.