Film Review – Dunkirk
Where do I even begin?
Christopher Nolan is a rare breed. He is one of the few filmmakers that has successfully crossed the line between independent art and mainstream appeal. His films are uniquely his own, and yet he has the ability to invite audiences into his world to pick apart whatever themes he tries to convey. He can range from telling the story of two competing magicians (The Prestige, 2006), to a caped crusader (The Dark Knight trilogy) to the mysteries of the universe itself (Interstellar, 2014) – each incorporating his individual blend of craft, tone, and manipulation.
All of this comes together in laser sharp clarity in Dunkirk (2017), which may very well be Nolan’s finest achievement to date. Retelling the events that took place in May and June 1940 – where Allied forces were surrounded by German troops at the small harbor town of Dunkirk, France – Nolan has come into the full realization of his cinematic powers. This is the leanest and most focused we have seen him. There is not a wasted moment – from the opening scenes to the end credits, Nolan has fashioned a World War II film that looks like an epic, but is so tight that it feels damn near intimate. By the time it’s over we’re exhausted, as though Nolan has wound us up and didn’t let go the entire way through.
From the very outset of his career, Nolan has been interested in twisting and bending time. In Memento (2000), he told his narrative backwards and forwards until the two collided in the middle. He took that idea a step further in Inception (2010), where time stretched out the further we dove into a person’s dreams. The same concept is featured with Dunkirk. We follow three different perspectives: the first from a young English solider (Fionn Whitehead), trapped on the beach trying to find his way onto a ship to cross the English Channel back home. The next from a civilian sailor (Mark Rylance) and two boys who volunteer to take their small boat to France to rescue whatever survivors there may be. And the last from a pilot (Tom Hardy) tasked to stop enemy aircraft. Each story is marked with a title card, signaling how long each take place: from one week, to one day, and finally one harrowing hour.
This nonlinear structure is disorienting at first. Scenes seem to contrast together. At one point, we are flying in the sky in the sunshine, the very next we are swimming in the water in pitch-black darkness. We assume that we are seeing numerous action set pieces happening, but then discover that it may all be one set piece told from different points of view. Characters hop in and out of each of the three stories freely, contributing to the confusion. But the further we go along, we start to see the strings Nolan has weaved, and how he slowly starts to pull those strings together. A narrative consistency is revealed as each sequence goes along. Moments of peril and rescue are paralleled throughout. Each of the three stories come together into a singular point at the climax, where everything is put together like a jigsaw puzzle.
There is a constant state of suspense. Trapped on the beach, the Allied soldiers stand around like sitting ducks ready to be picked off. The coastline is too shallow for ships to come to shore, and so the soldiers must traverse a thin, extended dock that basically acts as a bulls’ eye for enemy fire. This is all exacerbated by the fact that they are so close to home. Characters mention how they can see Great Britain in the distance, causing some to act out in desperation. The sight of an unnamed soldier walking into the water – foolishly thinking he can swim across the channel – amplifies the feeling of hopelessness these soldiers must have been going through. The naval commander in charge (Kenneth Branagh) can only watch as each attack comes barging in with little to no resistence.
Nolan (who takes sole credit for the screenplay) structures the events in small sequences of high tension. For a war film, there is a surprisingly small amount of actual bloodshed. The German soldiers (described as “The Enemy”) are noticeably faceless. Even when Tom Hardy’s pilot shoots upon enemy fighter planes, the events are told entirely through his perspective (Nolan once again making use of Hardy’s expressive eyes while behind a mask). This is done primarily to spotlight the basic instincts of these soldiers, which is simply to survive. Scenes are broken down to straightforward objectives: try to get an injured man onto a rescue boat, try to escape a sinking ship, try to swim to safety. By focusing on survival instead of war, Nolan makes the deaths feel all the more reverberating. The most powerful death actually happens off screen, and yet its affect ripples throughout the rest of the film.
Critics of Nolan point to his abundant use of expositional dialogue – characters constantly explaining what is happening at each given moment and what it means. Those critics will have to sit in silence this time around, as Nolan erases nearly all exposition. Most sequences go completely wordless, Hoyte Van Hoytema’s camera opting to push in on faces to tell us everything we need to know. Two characters that don’t speak the same language must rely on glances and body language to communicate, and the film does the same with us. Most of the word play is done out of necessity: “Get out of the way!” “Where are the boats?” “Abandon ship!” The dialogue is replaced by superb sound design and Hans Zimmer‘s urgent, nerve wracking score. Each time I heard the sound of an aircraft flying in, the hairs on my neck stood at attention.
One of the biggest problems modern blockbusters face is the overuse of computer generated special effects. It’s used as a means to accomplish whatever feats one desires, but when used poorly it softens the stakes because we know that what we’re seeing isn’t real. Dunkirk is impressive because many of the special effects are done practically, in camera. Those are real stunt men jumping into the water, those are real explosions taking place on the beach, those are real boats floating in the water. In some ways, Christopher Nolan is underappreciated with his insistence on this traditional approach. The stakes are high because everything on screen looks and feels tangible. When a rescue boat is bombed and starts to sink, it’s portrayed as though what we see is exactly what the camera captured on that day. This is far more effective than what other, lesser blockbusters have to offer. These are not tired, old school thoughts, mind you. Compare what you see here to anything you’ll see in the Transformers films – which one do you think will look outdated fifty years from now?
After the disappointment that was Interstellar, I began to wonder if Christopher Nolan was cut out for this new, sentimental type of storytelling. Gone were the obsessive characters filled with desperation, replaced with ideas of love and compassion. Interstellar dealt with these themes in a hokey, clunky way. But only one film later, and Nolan has apparently mastered this new, optimistic outlook. In style and execution, he has made not just one of his very best works, and not only one of the best films of the year – Dunkirk is one of the best war films of the decade.