Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Cinematographer: Hoyte van Hoytema
Producer: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan
by Jon Cvack
After the success of watching Interstellar ('14) without seeing a single trailer, looking at a single screenshot, reading a single synopsis, and only accidentally seeing a tagline on a bus station billboard, not having a single clue what to expect, I was excited to see Dunkirk with the same strategy in mind (this time making sure I didn’t look at any bus stops); however, unfortunately having one person spoiling the triptych structure in an article title on Reddit.
There was once a movement of epic war films that we haven’t seen since Saving Private Ryan (1998) and The Thin Red Line (1998), first brought about by The Longest Day (1962)and reaching its zenith with films like A Bridge Too Far, The Guns of Navarone (1961), and Where Eagles Dare (1968). Inglourious Basterds (2009) returned to the genre, offering the action over drama and yet bringing the high brow art of Tarantino and, as with all his films, standing tangentially to the genre than within it. Dunkirk isn’t exactly the epic war film I was expecting to see, and yet it provided the greatest iMax experience I’ve yet had, serving as one of Nolan’s best films.
Similar to Nolan’s other explorations of time as, seen in Inception (2010) and Memento (2000), this film follows three separate storylines; all taking place at the infamous retreat at Dunkirk. One thing I kind of wish I read was a brief synopsis of Dunkirk, as having recently read about it in "Atonement" and its devastating history, and seeing the effects in the film (which left out much of the action from McEwan’s book), I realize how little we Americans know about the event.
In an interview, Nolan reveals how it was a story that he grew up with; ingrained in English culture the ways D-Day is in American. Logline being that, in 1940, before America was even in the war and after an unsuccessful invasion across the English channel and into France, the German slaughtered the British forces, forcing them to retreat to Dunkirk. With the channel filled with German U-Boats, numerous Luftwaffe flying through the sky, and the German forces closing in, the United Kingdom was humiliated, refusing to risk anymore carriers to take the men off the beach, instead opting for a bunch of small fishing boats to make the long journey and retrieve the men. In the end Churchill would make his famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speed, of Iron Maiden Live After Death Fame.
Not knowing about the great retreat or the method involved, it made me assume that this was much more about an immense battle per the likes of The Battle of the Bulge or Stalingrad. On the other hand, it’s a testament to Nolan’s prowess that - after gaining a more base understanding of where I was and what I was watching - he made me excited to start piecing together the story.
It involves three narratives - one follows an ace spitfire pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and his partner Collins (Jack Lowden), taking place over a single hour; the second follows fisherman Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance; in a brilliant role) who’s taking his boat across the channel with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan; who will go on to do great things), taking place over a day; and the third follows British army pilot (Fionn Whitehead) who for once looks his character's age at only eighteen years old, determined to do whatever it takes to get off the beach as quickly as possible, taking place over a week. It takes a second to fully grasp how this structure plays out. One of the first criticisms I heard coming out of the film was an older man’s inability to follow the events by even midway through.
It makes me where Christopher Nolan is simply interested in the idea of time within narrative, or how time is observed by particular characters within certain situations. A plane that’s only got an hour left of fuel left while trying to save as many men as possible is more pressing than hiding away in a boat for half a day, waiting for the tide to come in. I’d have to watch it again to see the way this might operate, though I suspect I might not find much. Instead I’d argue Nolan’s more interested in how time provides new forms of narrative, rather than any grand philosophic examinations. While I was expecting an epic battle sequence, instead Nolan focused on the more minute elements of the larger tragedy; using his hyper realistic style (with the vast majority of the effects being practical and it's wonderful) to, as he said in his interview with Peter Travers, “...capture what it’s like to be there.”
Everything looks so real and so large on the iMax screen, with the ocean and beaches extending as far as the eye can see, that Nolan somehow takes what seems a straightforward story and weaves it into a challenging and yet accessible narrative unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Like most of his movies, and the reason I think he’s one of the best contemporary filmmaker, is his commitment to film language while being at the pinnacle of popular entertainment - he’s a High Art filmmaker, who while occasionally wandering into melodrama, is able to make you believe, or even certain, that what you are watching has actually or could actually happen. Dunkirk accomplishes the rare feat of ushering in a new style of Hollywood action filmmaking; especially in an age where the vast majority of these films abandon everything Nolan promotes - an over reliance on VFX and a strange homogenous language, looking as though the same voice extends throughout the majority of these films.
Dunkirk has been criticized for celebrating war with others saying it celebrates valor. I think both are silly questions to ponder. It is action movie that celebrates the civilians who dedicated their lives to rescuing the soldiers at Dunkirk, capturing the fear, worry, and events which surrounded the day. Nolan’s brilliance comes by abandoning any commitment to actual events, instead opting to try and position the audience as close as possible the experience. I resent those who refuse to accept anything beyond an anti-war message when positioning viewers as close as possible to the fear as possible might be a far greater way to demonstrate the horror and dangers. No one should ever want to feel that way, or wish that any of their younger citizens would have to. Few filmmakers have provided such a visceral experience, some pro-war, some anti, some celebrating veterans, and Nolan has joined their ranks. He created a war film that will be watched for the rest of cinematic time, living in the same ranks as any of the greats.
BELOW: Great Vox explainer video about Han Zimmer's score
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