Dunkirk is a typical Christopher Nolan movie, very well-made and engrossing but with glaring faults. For me the faults have been too many and too severe in the last two movies he's made. Interstellar was marred by confusing character motivations and an absurd "twist" ending. Dunkirk sinks by virtue of its terrible sound design and editing.
Why in the world is this story not told linearly? We have three storylines running at different paces converging on the same scene. Why? It was natural for Inception, when you had a dream within a dream within a dream. What purpose does it serve here, other than to rationalize introducing Tom Hardy's character an hour earlier? We see one character in one storyline appear in the next scene on another storyline the day before. This is not an "aha!" moment but a contrivance of the editing, which as far as I can tell has no justification other than the self-serving one of fooling the audience into thinking they found a missing tile to a puzzle. They only found it because the filmmakers hid it from them in the first place.
Why can I only understand one-fourth of the words the characters are saying to each other? The bass in the soundtrack is so loud it drowns out the dialogue. This issue has gotten progressively worse with each Nolan film dating back to The Dark Knight Rises.
It kills the tension when the characters do things that make no sense. Why did the group of trained soldiers get in an abandoned boat and not post a topside watch? Why do they assume the British will pick them up as they drift out to sea and not the Germans? The scene where they argued about throwing one of the soldiers off the boat to lighten the weight so the boat wouldn't sink was a shockingly bald attempt to concoct suspense and create a moral dilemma for the protagonist to distinguish himself. It's made worse by the fact that this argument occurs as hundreds of gallons of seawater come in through bulletholes in the hull. Was there not a single person involved in the production who told Nolan throwing one man off a bullet-ridden boat won't stop it from sinking? And it was weird that Harry Styles was gung-ho about murdering a fellow soldier, but he was chums with the protagonist a few scenes later. All's well that ends well, I guess, except for Styles' would-be victim who was left behind in the boat and drowned.
I can't overstate the failure of this scene. It defaces the whole movie. It's like when you're interviewing someone for a job, and they're pontificating about their field and sound competent, but then they say something so nonsensical that you wonder if everything they've done to impress you was staged or faked. That's what the kill-one-to-save-all scene does to an otherwise decent thriller. It was such a forced and dumb scene that it took me right out of the movie. I couldn't wait for it to end after that.
The threat of the Germans was not sustained during the beach scenes. One or two German planes do at most four runs at the beach during the movie, scattering little bombs in the sand. Many soldiers, including ones lying right next to the protagonist, don't get up. What killed them, falling sand? There's no gore, no screams, no close calls to justify the soldiers' fear or desperation. An R rating would have helped the movie in this regard, but it would have hurt the box office.
Kenneth Branagh's character is wasted staring grimly across the English Channel and delivering expository dialogue. He watches a ship sink literally yards away and stands still as a statue as his countrymen drown. Later a German plane dives straight for him and he doesn't move a muscle. Dude, take cover! Branagh's contract must have stated he couldn't break a sweat during filming.
Tom Hardy's plane glides without fuel for what seems like 15 minutes, then he lands down the beach from his compatriots and lets himself be captured by the Germans while the evacuation is underway. No reason is given for this.
Finally, the scale of the evacuation is underserved. It seems like there were only a few thousand soldiers on the beach. There were no more than 50 or so civilian boats visible during the rescue. The "miracle" of the evacuation is more told by Branagh than actually shown. Nolan's stubborn aversion to digital effects hurt the movie noticeably in this regard. This is a shame, since the civilian boats coming into Dunkirk was the sweetest moment in the movie's 107-minute runtime.
I wouldn't be writing this unless I thought Dunkirk was getting way more praise than it deserves. It doesn't hold a candle to other modern war movies like Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, or even Hacksaw Ridge. It's probably Christopher Nolan's worst movie, at best a tie with the silly and overlong Interstellar. We know he's capable of making great movies, but he's in a serious slump that the critics are abetting by unwaveringly singing his praises as each successive movie diminishes in quality.