Dunkirk subverts the tropes associated with “war films,” “blockbusters,” and “event cinema.” Nolan’s film transcends its critical and commercial aspirations to become something extremely rare in cinema these days – it is a work of art.
I became a war film junkie at the early age of eleven-years-old. Seeing Platoon at my local drive-in profoundly impacted me. The fear, violence, and lack of heroism portrayed in Platoon immediately hooked me, and for the last thirty years I have sought out war films.
I have been eagerly awaiting Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk since news first broke he was working on this film. Despite limited knowledge about Operation Dynamo, I was nevertheless excited that one of the best filmmakers around was jumping into the genre of war films. I knew Nolan would bring something new and fresh to a genre full of overused clichés. Christopher Nolan films have become cultural events. Few directors have experienced the critical acclaim and financial success of his films.
Dunkirk is a Different Kind of “War Film”
When the film ended and the writer-director’s name appeared on screen, I thought to myself, “he did it.” Nolan brings a refreshing vitality to Dunkirk by revisiting a more classic style and approach to filmmaking. Dunkirk is a war film inasmuch as the film centers around a wartime event. But those who want their war films served up with gritty editing and splattering of carnage in the vein of Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge will walk away disappointed. Dunkirk has more in common with the old classic suspense thrillers. His filmmaking approach harkens back to Alfred Hitchcock more than Steven Spielberg.
Dunkirk subverts the tropes and beats associated with “war films,” “blockbusters,” and “event cinema.” The film wastes no time with build-up or set-up. The audience is immediately thrown in the center of the battle and on the beaches. We see and feel what those young soldiers see and feel as they battle the looming attack and sudden terror of impending death. The film clocks in at a lean 107 minutes and has no time for cinematic excess.
This is not a typical war film. The Nazis are never seen. The operation centers around a crushing allied defeat and retreat. And Nolan, born in London to a British father and an American mother, has made a refreshing war film without America in it. Dunkirk is a film I didn’t realize I needed until experiencing it. Nolan met, exceeded, and subverted my expectations. In doing so, Dunkirk transcends its critical and commercial aspirations to become something extremely rare in cinema these days – it is a work of art.
The Battle of Dunkirk Holds an Enigmatic Place in History
Operation Dynamo was a crushing defeat for the Allies, a battle that resulted in mass casualties and lost equipment. Nevertheless, the evacuation of more than 300,000 soldiers is viewed as a triumphant moment for Great Britain and a testimony of resolve and communal nationality.
Four-hundred thousand British, French, Canadian and Belgian soldiers were trapped on the beaches of a small French town called Dunkirk, all waiting to be evacuated before they’re wiped out by the might of Hitler on land, sea and air. The Allied troops were sitting ducks. The wait was brutally ironic and intolerable in that the English Channel, a 26-mile stretch of water, was so close the British soldiers could see home.
Employing extensive cross-cutting, Nolan presents the events of late May 1940 using three perspectives: The Mole (infantry on the beaches of Dunkirk awaiting evacuation), The Sea (a civilian crossing of the Channel), and The Air (a spitfire pilot tasked with stopping Germans from strafing and bombing rescue vessels and defenseless soldiers).
Dunkirk is a Structural and Narrative Masterpiece
Those familiar with Nolan’s filmography undoubtedly have picked up on his obsession with time. His movies play with narrative structure. But don’t lump him in with post-modern filmmakers like Tarantino. The complex structure of his films recall Welles’ Citizen Kane or Kubrick’s The Killing.
In Dunkirk he breaks down the nine-day rescue across three intersecting narrative time spans: one week on land, one day at sea and one hour in the sky. In re-enacting this momentous battle from multiple perspectives Nolan strives to create an immersive and intimate viewing experience. Each separate narrative is woven into one cohesive tapestry that builds with looming suspense, dread, and exhilaration.
Dunkirk Needs to Be Seen on the Biggest of the Big Screens
From a cinematic standpoint, Dunkirk is Nolan’s most ambitious film. The majority of footage was captured using IMAX 70mm cameras. This film takes no shortcuts. Nolan once commented, “David Lean dragged 65-millimeter cameras into the desert while shooting ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and I don’t know why we shouldn’t have similar aspirations.”
Camera wiz Hoyte van Hoytema, editor Lee Smith, and composer Hans Zimmer (listen for the tick-tock in his score) deserve praise for their contributions to this beautiful film. Dunkirk is the ultimate virtual reality experience created in the master hands of Christopher Nolan. You hear and feel every bullet whistling by. The panic of treading water in the ocean creates a sense of helplessness as an enemy plane circles above you. Dunkirk is a monumental achievement in filmmaking. I watched the advanced, early screening on a regular screen. Do yourself a favor and go see it in IMAX like I plan to with my family.
Dunkirk is Light on Exposition
Early reports that the film would be light on dialogue were accurate. Dunkirk has long, uninterrupted shots of unfolding events with little-to-no dialogue. Some might argue it’s to the film’s detriment. I found it refreshing. It is a call back to epic films where David Lean and Francis Ford Coppola allowed the visuals to create the mood. The lack of banter and chatter also conveys the fatigue or resignation of the stranded soldiers who had been battered by the enclosing German forces and impending doom.
In scaling back the dialogue, Christopher Nolan corrected my biggest criticism of his filmography: his excessive dialogue and exposition. He and his screenwriting brother Jonathan Nolan shares this flaw. The Dark Knight Trilogy, Interstellar, and Inception all have sections where characters explain (and over-explain) plot points to each other (and the audience).
In Dunkirk, the writer-director has made the brilliant choice to show rather than tell. Perhaps it’s a testament to his clout as a director that has afforded him this maturity. Nolan has commented how he would have to explain things to studio execs about his films and he realized he also had to explain it to the audience. But in Dunkirk, Nolan trusts the audience will connect the dots. Or he realizes that everything doesn’t need to be explicitly explained onscreen.
Hans Zimmer also shows incredible restraint and subtly in his film score. Zimmer has worked with Nolan to create some of the most iconic scores in recent film history, with the Dark Knight and Inception being their creative high points. However, like Nolan, Zimmer has been guilty of excess and overindulgence. Here, the score is used to complement and highlight the threat and dread – not artificially create it like the sweeping and over-emotive scores of John Williams.
Dunkirk’s Action Chooses Realism Over Spectacle
The film’s aerial battles are a marvel of technical filmmaking and choreography. The absence of CGI-created airplanes adds a level of authenticity to the action sequences in the sky. The planes are heavy and lumbering. They don’t zigzag like the weightless CGI-created planes depicted in other war films like Red Tails. The editing isn’t the staccato quick cuts of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. The pilots don’t fire endless amounts of bullets at their enemies. These fighter pilots exude persistence, precision, and patience. And when planes are shot they don’t result in spectacular explosions but rather smoke and the inevitable crash.
Dunkirk’s Marvels in the Threat of Death Rather Than the Spectacle of Violence
Before 1997, most war films were relatively bloodless. But Saving Private Ryan changed the expectations for war films. The level of carnage has risen in subsequent years and war movies. Dunkirk reverses course and avoids close-ups of dead bodies, spectacular explosions, and lingering shots of bursting guts. Nolan is not interested in making just another war film. Dunkirk is about tension and the never-ending threat. I didn’t find the film to be any less “real” because of the self-imposed limitations on gratuitous violence.
The Difficulty in Making a Film About War
One of the biggest criticism leveled at war films will certainly be directed at Dunkirk; that it’s difficult to identify and separate all the different soldiers. It is a challenge most war films face. There are usually tried and true tropes used to solve this dilemma. Often a platoon or battalion is comprised of a ragtag group of individuals. There’s the idealist, the coward, the youthful looking lad, the Bible-quoting killer, and the seasoned veteran often filling in as a surrogate father. These caricatures often serve two purposes; they help differentiate and humanize the soldiers, and they generate grief and loss when those said soldiers are killed.
Often, I have found these clichés to also be foreshadowing of who’s going to get killed in a war film. Death scenes in war films also tend to follow a predictable formula. One dying soldier will cry out for his mother. Another soldier will pass along a letter to be sent to his family. And no war movie is complete without a dying soldier whispering, “Tell my wife I love her.” Nolan has no use for these old-time Hollywood tricks and shortcuts. We get to know nothing about the soldier’s backstory. It is only through their actions and expressions that characterization is communicated. This is an ensemble film. Each actor is well cast and admirably performs their roles. But there is no time for showboating or monopolizing the screen. Dunkirk is not a character-based or actor-centric movie.
The largest number of scenes belong to the relative unknown Fionn Whitehead, whose Tommy represents the everyday soldier stuck on the beach, desperate to find a way out of Dunkirk. Mark Rylance, whose Mr. Dawson is driven by patriotic fervor, steers his small yacht Moonstone across the channel. Spitfire pilot Tom Hardy (Farrier) engages in dogfights with German planes to aid the rescue and evacuation of the stranded soldiers. Notable supporting performances include pop icon Harry Styles as one of Tommy’s compatriots, Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier, and Kenneth Branaugh as Commander Bolton, the highest ranking British officer on the ground in Dunkirk. I tend to forgive the lack of differentiation because I intend to see this film multiple times. But I also think the absence of individuality serves the film.
Dunkirk is a Continuation of Psychological Obsessions Explored in Christopher Nolan Films
One of the reasons a Nolan film is an event movie is that they are embraced by both the critical and populist audience. He has been anointed the successor of both the populist Spielberg and the auteur Kubrick. His ascension has occurred without any campaigning or vanity on his own behalf.
The reoccurring themes of insecurity, moral ambiguity, and free will continue to resonate with audiences. In The Dark Knight, the moral ambiguity and ambivalence was showcased in the ferry scene. The questions of, “what will people do to survive?” or “what are we willing to sacrifice for our own gain?” are also explored in Dunkirk, albeit in more subtle fashion. One of the treats of Dunkirk is that Nolan doesn’t hit you over the head with the themes.
The viewer has to do a bit of digging to find the thematic gold. In Dunkirk the core theme is utilitarian dilemma of a rescue and evacuation operation. How many lives do you risk in order to save others? What lives are worth more, civilian, military, French, English, officers, pilots? Operation Dynamo was considered a military success. But lest we forget, 68,111 men of the BEF were captured or killed during Blitzkrieg, retreat and evacuation, and 40,000 French troops were taken into captivity when Dunkirk fell.
Nolan is a moralist who loves to challenge the limits people will adhere to their values. Heath Ledger’s Joker exemplifies a nihilistic outlook. “Their morals, their code … it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.” Dunkirk disproves the Joker’s outlook on the grandest of scales. When the British were down, civilized people stepped up and fulfilled their patriotic and national duties.
Is Dunkirk the Greatest War Film Ever?
Dunkirk deserves to be included in the conversation of “greatest war film of all-time.” However, I’m not prepared to call Dunkirk “the best.” Its aim and scope is drastically different than the allegorical Apocalypse Now, the shock and chaos of Private Ryan, or the racial politics of Platoon. It is simply impossible for one film to encapsulate all the themes and horrors of war.
Folks hoping for only the cheap thrills of an action film will miss the artistic beauty of Nolan’s film. The box office success of Dunkirk is not guaranteed. In a summer dripping with mindless escapism, escape the redundancy of sequels and treat yourself to the best film so far of 2017. Dunkirk is a masterpiece and Christopher Nolan’s crowning cinematic achievement. Grade: A+
In Theaters: Wide