By Jack Dignan
Throughout all of Dunkirk’s marketing, director Christopher Nolan has been trying to make one thing very clear: this is not a war movie. It’s a statement many may find understandably hard to believe given the premise and footage of the movie, in which soldiers are depicted fighting for survival on a beach in France, but, once you see the film, Nolan’s statements ring true. This isn’t a war movie. It’s a humane depiction of survival and the fierce determination of soldiers in peril. There’s no epic battle. There’s no running across trenches. There’s even restraint in the amount of gunfire. And, interestingly, there isn’t a single German soldier.
Whether it’s the backwards-moving plot in Memento, the game changing Dark Knight trilogy or the ambitious and grounded sci-fi epic Interstellar, Nolan is always looking for a way to do something different. His stories are big in scale. They can take even the simplest of concepts and twist it into something unlike anything seen on film before. Dunkirk, on the surface, feels like a more straightforward entry into his filmography. It’s the real life recount of nearly 400,000 allied forces attempting to escape a German-surrounded beach in the midst of World War 2. But, knowing Nolan, straightforward storytelling isn’t an option, and he takes this simplistic premise and creates a war story unlike any other.
We follow three different narratives that occur concurrently, but cover different ground. The timelines are all off, intertwining at different paces while all building towards the same finishing point. Opening title cards provide all the background we need. These are soldiers desperate for a way out, teased by the closeness of home, but unable to get there. “Seeing home doesn’t get us there.” And that it doesn’t. It’s a far more grueling and harrowing story, with unseen enemy troops surrounding their every move. A couple of German planes are about all we see of them. They aren’t even described as Germans, but simply “the enemy.” Nolan has crafted an atmospheric and relentlessly tense survival story that draws you into the action and replicates the sensation of being on that beach.
This isn’t a story of any one man. There’s no sole protagonist. It’s three stories intertwining to depict the horrors faced on that beach. Dunkirk is a movie about the experience, not the journey, with similarities to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, but taken in a completely new direction. Both films are retrospectively in the same mind frame. They’re war films about the terror of war, covering as much ground as possible and bringing with them a sensation of fear and no escape. With Dunkirk, paranoia is everywhere. You’re with these characters every step of the way, if they can even be described as characters. Everything is done with practical effects, from the ships to the planes to everything in-between, and it allows for an immersive, dialogue-less experience.
Dunkirk’s opening half an hour feels very reminiscent of a silent film. It’s a realistic depiction of war, with the characters only talking when absolutely necessary. You don’t get to know anything about them, but Nolan creates empathy amidst their situation. Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy, the first character we see on screen and closest thing to a protagonist that we have, is man of very little words. Everyone in the film has an understanding of what’s going on, where they need to go and the struggles of how to get there. They don’t need endless exposition. Nolan’s script is taut, tense and tight. Everything is very to the point, with little breathing room and a relentless onslaught of nightmarish situations. It’s stylistically fresh, but also overwhelming. All of the violence starts happening at once, intercut across multiple stories, and you’re never given enough time to soak in what’s happening. It becomes easy to fall behind, even for just the briefest of moments.
But, in maintaining the constant realism, that’s exactly what these soldiers are going through. In a real life situation, none of them would have a moment to stop and think about their next move. You don’t have time to prepare or look back. It’s run or die, and that’s where the film ambitiously leads. Not a single moment feels safe. Peril is but a mere minute away, and while several moments throughout hint towards an optimistic fate for our heroes, danger strikes in the most unexpected of ways, and I dug it. A scene towards the third act feels like a miraculous, conveniently timed victory, and it was lingering on feeling unsatisfying, but the enemy isn’t done yet, and it transforms the finale from an abrupt rescue to a tight escape mission.
Dunkirk is not a tale of heroism. It’s a tale of survival, but it’s one that doesn’t feel as suspenseful as it should. There are plenty of sequences throughout that had me on edge, but the biggest fault with a lack of connection to these characters is that when shit’s going down, I wasn’t as emotionally invested as I probably should have been. So many moments dwindle on unimportant characters, most of whom we haven’t seen on screen prior to their disastrous situation. We want them to survive, but in the realm of the movie, and in no way related to the true story, I just didn’t care enough about them, which is of no fault to any of the cast members. Each of them delivers the exact performance necessary for their character.
This is one of the finest ensemble casts put to film in a very long time. The actor’s range from newcomers to Oscar winners to, yes, Harry Styles from One Direction. While Styles has stolen the spotlight during a lot of the press, Nolan and co. being bombarded with a plethora of One Direction related questions, he does give a shockingly able performance, perhaps even one of the best in the movie. His One Direction façade completely disappears, as he’s absorbed into this character. Also excellent is newcomer Fionn Whitehead and little known British actor Barry Keoghan. But, really, everyone in this film is utterly spectacular. Given the size of the cast, nobody really gets the spotlight for too long, but when on screen, they give it their all.
From Tom Hardy to Mark Rylance to Kenneth Branagh to Cillian Murphy and beyond, there’s not a single weak link. Nolan may have the daunting task of directing such a large number of actors, but given each of their talents, his job almost seems to be done for him. Still, it’s everything else in the film that comes together quite nicely and makes for a movie that is, like the rest of his filmography, technologically groundbreaking. Hans Zimmer’s score is tense and moody. He backs his tracks up with a ticking watch, which successfully elevates the suspense and creates a more demanding time restraint on their survival. It’s one of the finest scores of the year. The entire film is one big ticking time bomb, and the sound designers are sure to go home with a couple of Oscars come February.
Last year, I was fortunate enough to experience Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight in glorious Ultra Panavision. Watching a film is pristine 70mm projection is extremely rare in today’s world, and it’s an opportunity I always love to attend. Dunkirk continues to ensure that 70mm is not a thing of the past. The camera work, shot on actual film, is stunning. Every frame is impeccably beautiful, devoid of colour but making the most of what’s there. Seeing these frames showcased the way they were intended furthers the immersive nature of the overall experience, and while watching it on a digital projector is sure to thrill, there’s nothing out there quite like watching it on 70mm.
I need to see Dunkirk again. It’s a film I can only see myself coming to appreciate more and more, and while I stand by my current rating, it wouldn’t surprise me to see it get bumped up after a rewatch. Christopher Nolan has a wide and impressive filmography, so creating the best film of his career is a challenge to say the least, but he gives it his absolute all with this movie, and for that reason alone, its ambitiousness makes it worth a watch. Except you don’t really watch Dunkirk. You feel it.
3 1/2 Stars
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