Introduction and Summary
With Oscar buzz generating from the moment the first trailer was released, I knew that I would have to see Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk, in theaters. A war film was sure to fit the director’s trademark filmmaking techniques like a glove, and Nolan delivers a very stylistic and polished contribution to the genre. His enthusiasm for the history and desire to honor the events and players involved shine through in this unique, though sometimes dizzying wartime tale.
The film follows the events of the massive Dunkirk evacuation of British and French soldiers during WWII through the eyes of several characters located in different areas and at different times throughout the ordeal. There are three young soldiers, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Alex (Harry Styles), and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) trying to escape the beach, a civilian boat owner (Mark Rylance), Mr. Dawson, along with his son Peter (Tom Glyne-Carney) and helper George (Barry Keoghan) out to rescue as many soldiers as possible, and two British pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) attempting to minimalize the German attacks from the air. The film intercuts between the accounts that each group of characters experience throughout the historic event and eventually culminates into a meet up between all three stories to form the climax and eventual rescue of the trapped soldiers at the expense of certain characters’ lives and freedom.
Tone and Storytelling
Director Christopher Nolan pulls a complete 180 from his usual brand of storytelling in some respects while remaining true to his style in others. Tommy is a nearly silent character throughout most of the movie, though the constant action and forward movement creates little opportunity for long monologues. Because of this, you get little to no characterization of the characters aside from how they act and react from sequence to sequence. They are each unwavering in their mission. Tommy is avoiding explosion after explosion, Mr. Dawson is trying to keep his non-military helpers focused on their self-assigned mission, the pilots are trying to keep firing on their enemy for as long as their fuel will allow, and even the Navy Commander (Kenneth Branagh) unflinchingly holds his post, hoping for a miracle. This miracle comes in the form of dozens of civilian boat owners approaching the beaches to load up as many soldiers as they can hold. You don’t need much dialogue to express what a relief it is when these rescuers appear in the water after watching what these young men must go through to stay alive, hopping from sinking ship to sinking ship.
While he brings on a few of the Nolan regulars such as Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy, the cast is populated with relative unknowns (at least in the acting world) who need to carry the movie primarily with action and expression. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the characters apart in a scene. The soldiers are all young, white men with dark hair. The pilots wear masks throughout most of their scenes, disguising them as well. This works in the fact that each character is obviously meant to represent a general experience had from land, air, and sea, but it, along with the varying time frames presented through the three different perspectives, can make the events hard to follow.
Visuals and Sound
Land, air, and sea are all represented in breathtaking images, putting us on the wings of the planes one minute and below decks of a sinking ship the next. The opening sequence is particularly captivating with Tommy as one of a small group of soldiers dodging enemy fire through neighborhood yards and alleys, setting the scene with its blue and white color palate. Every scene in the film is gorgeous to look at from crisp, clear ocean waves to grainy beaches to wispy blue and white skies. You can almost smell the inside of Mr. Dawson’s vessel and feel the slick oil that coats the soldiers who leap into the sea after their latest ship is attacked. In his traditional non-linear storytelling method, the scenes shift from day to night, cloudy to bright, calm to chaotic. You don’t usually think of war movies as pretty to look at, but this one is without taking away from the violence and fear that it should emit.
Sound is another crucial storytelling element in any war movie. It’s hard to say if the sound is going to hold up at home, but in a theater, the sounds are sharp and shocking in a way that really puts the audience in the scenes. The lack of dialogue and subdued score allow the sounds to come to the forefront in a way that you are likely to ignore otherwise.
Dunkirk is essentially a rescue story with a wartime backdrop. Many of the main characters don’t even carry weapons for most of the movie. You’re not going to see the Saving Private Ryan gore or get the in-depth characterization of the players like in Fury. If anything, it’s more like last year’s Hacksaw Ridge in its message that this is not about taking out the enemy but of saving our allies. The heroism doesn’t come from those called upon to serve their country in the traditional sense of carry out a mission and come back in one piece. Instead, it suggests that survival itself is heroic enough. Instead, it is those who are meant to stay home and wait out the war who feel compelled to take action and rescue those who are supposed to be protecting them.
There is always something going on in each scene including waves of tension meant to keep the story moving without feeling like one large battle scene. There are also beats of unpredictability to keep the story fresh, even to those who may be experts of the real life events. I can’t pretend to know how historically or emotionally accurate this movie is to the real stories that those who were affected lived and/or died through, and this movie is so concentrated and focused that it sometimes forgets to spell things out for those of us who do not know anything about the history behind the movie. But that’s just not Nolan’s style.
As with most Christopher Nolan movies, I’m going to need repeat viewings to understand the timeline and events as they unfold. I also would have liked a few moments where the characters could pause and take a breath long enough to get to know them a little better than the few pieces of information we get about each one. There are a few scenes, especially at the beginning, where this could have been worked in, but there seems to be an unwritten rule going on in the script to keep exposition and characterization to a minimum. This is what sets the movie apart from other war stories, but it also feels like an unnecessary restriction to place on the film. I believe that repeat viewings may change my mind about that in time since I didn’t feel that any particular sequence dragged on or felt out of place, but on first viewing, it was a traditional storytelling element that I craved.
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Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on August 02, 2017:
Haven't seen it, and perhaps won't; but I like your keen observation, for example, of sound that does so much for the movie but may or may not hold up at home and the need for more conversation from the characters. Very good review!