Even with the overwhelmingly positive reception, I was uncertain about how this film would play out for me. Christopher Nolan’s films are epic in length and driven by dialogue, so when I found out that the script for Dunkirk was a comparatively measly 76 pages and the running time below two hours, my skepticism hit a new high. Of course my big mouth was clamped shut as Nolan has delivered an astoundingly unique experience that demands to be seen in an IMAX theater.
As the Nazis advance further into France in May of 1940, 400,000 Allied soldiers find themselves pinned down by the enemy and stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. With aerial and ground support, the troops are systematically evacuated over the course of 9 days using every functional vessel possible including civilian vessels commandeered by the Royal Navy. This true event is told through 3 alternating and intertwining perspectives; a week on land with a young British soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who is trying to survive, one day at sea with Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son as they make their contribution to the cause with their small boat, and one airborne hour through the eyes of a RAF Spitfire pilot named Farrier (Tom Hardy) as he engages in dogfights with the German Luftwaffe.
With “Dunkirk” I believe Christopher Nolan has undertaken some of the bravest and most audacious decisions in the history of war cinema to astoundingly remarkable results. In lieu of tear-jerking deaths, tales from home, motivational speeches, camaraderie, character backstories, strategizing, and politics, Nolan has opted to approach this historically significant evacuation of Allied troops purely from the standpoint of survival. On an ostensible level the idea may sound massively unappealing in the league of class cinema as it would give this film the appearance of a soulless, thinly plotted, cacophonous, continuous action sequence with a woeful absence of a human element. However, our directorial maestro Mr. Nolan, armed with his cast, Hans Zimmer’s crescendoing score, cameras, and divine intellect, shatters our uncertainties with prodigious finesse. This time around Nolan allows actions, body language, unbridled tension, and camera shots to do the storytelling and thematic work as opposed to his signature dialogue, thereby exhibiting some impressive versatility and further cementing his status as one of the industry’s finest directors.
“Dunkirk” is visually arresting and immaculately shot, but that statement would just be scratching the surface because what we’ve got here is a celluloid manifestation of poetry. Let’s take Nolan’s shots of Dunkirk beach and shots of the English Channel during the dogfights as an example. They’re alluring, am I not mistaken? It’s as if they’re almost too beautiful to be part of a grim war film. But then comes the genius when making the juxtaposition of natural grandeur with the unadulterated ghastliness of manmade war. Sensations of sorrow and fear are experienced by the viewers as they witness nature become a life-threatener as a consequence of humanity’s evildoings. If you get shot out of the sky, that beautifully shot English Channel is now a threat to your survival. You can’t drink the water, there’s nothing to eat, and you’ll most likely die of thirst or drowning while waiting for a miracle that may never come. That grand long beach? I’d say it is now a land of unpredictability as every one of those soldiers is stranded out there in the wide open with nowhere to hide and is thus a likely target of the death-spraying Luftwaffe.
Christopher Nolan’s choice of alternation and intertwining multiple perspectives with their own timeframe is reminiscent of another mind-boggler of his: Inception. Even with a WWII drama driven by action, Nolan manages to test moviegoers with unconventional narrative structure. Some audiences might be confused by it, however I think the surgical precision of Lee Smith’s editing maintains a sense of order in such a volatile narrative structure and steadily pieces it all together.
Nolan’s visual discourse is bolstered by Hans Zimmer’s divine score. This soundtrack, complemented by the haunting sound of a ticking stopwatch, sets a relentless pace akin to an apprehensive heartbeat, magnified by a nail-biting sense of finality. Seeing as how Dunkirk is shown from the perspective of soldiers in the moment, Nolan chooses to not show the enemy’s side which further augments the unpredictability, tension, and realism factor.
My only criticism would be that the film appeared rather downscaled at times. A notable facet of Christopher Nolan’s filmmaking style is his utilization of practical effects to generate a sense of realism. In this film it looked like there were no more than a few thousand soldiers on the beach. I definitely think that Dunkirk could’ve benefitted from a creative usage of CGI or a greater number of extras to convey the sheer scale of the evacuation.
In the end I am fully confident in saying out loud that Dunkirk is a truly remarkable film. As a film about survival as opposed to triumph, it colossally succeeds in making every last one of those nameless soldiers and their actions matter. And as much as the familiar themes of heroism, patriotism, sacrifice, and hope strongly resonate given the absence of context, backstory, and character arcs, it’s actually the film’s finer details that become ingrained into your gray matter. It’s watching a shellshocked soldier removing his gear and swimming in the surf to his death. It’s frightened young men waiting to either live or die. It’s the sight of a female nurse comforting traumatized soldiers. It’s the lurid red color of nourishing jam on sliced bread in contrast to this film’s somber gray, brown, and muted blue color palette of death. Dunkirk is a stunning work of art that conveyed war’s futility and horrors with none of the tropes, preaching, or even blood. Make sure to watch it on the largest silver screen you can possibly find. Is it Saving Private Ryan? No, but you know a film does a great job when it makes you ruminate on its intricacies days after seeing it. Well done Mr. Nolan, bring on the next one.
My score: 9/10
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© 2017 Rami Nawfal