Dunkirk (2017)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Contains spoilers.

Ever so rarely there comes along a movie that is so perfectly depicted that it becomes a defining moment in cinema history. The Birth of a Nation (1915), Citizen Kane (1941), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (1977), any of the acclaimed works of Akira Kurosawa... And that's exactly what Dunkirk is headed towards: cinema history.

Here, Nolan tells the true story about the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force in the early-ish days of World War II, 1940 to be exact. After the war had begun Allied forces were forced to retreat to northern France where they were soon surrounded by German forces. While the French formed a rearguard to hold off the enemy, an evacuation was quickly put into place, with civilian vessels commandeered by the Royal Navy to help in any way that they could, no matter how small. The eight days that followed were a dismal, desperate affair which ultimately saved over 300,000 lives, at the loss of nearly 70,000 others in the process.

Nolan tells this story from 3 sides: the men on the beach, the boats in the channel, and the planes in the air. For the men on the beach, they could be waiting an entire week to be evacuated to England; for the boats, a trip to Dunkirk and back would take a stressful day; for the planes, an escort mission over the channel would last an hour.

These three perspectives, each harrowing in their own way, are woven together expertly, depicting events at once fluidly and combatively as they progressively wind together. Each perspective carries the weight of it's own importance to the narrative displayed and how each relates to the others.

And that's the truth of Dunkirk: our importance to each other. Nolan tells the story in the pinnacles of human emotion. Hope; despair; rage; loss; love; this story is an exploration of every peak and valley of human nature, cast against the grit, death, and hopelessness of war. This commentary is shown not in singular characters but in how these characters signify the group as a whole.

 

That concept is unusual to the filmmaking craft where individuals are normally thrust into the spotlight as the means with which to make an audience truly care about the events unfolding. That makes this feat of acting and storytelling all the more impressive. Each character represents not only himself but a whole slew of people just like them, and that's a true pressure to be the face of so many. Luckily, the cast bare that pressure beautifully. Every expression, every movement, every shrug and shifting of weight, every purse of the lips and glance around; every minuscule action is magnified; every word is amplified. And each actor plays their part beautifully, portraying each nuance of emotion and transforming utterly into their role, helping the audience get lost in the war with them.

And that's the point. Nolan doesn't want the audience to care only about the individual, he's trying to sow compassion and respect for every soldier and citizen by bringing us into their struggle as much as is possible for us.

Photography at the hands of Hoyte van Hoytema is masterful. Water is typically an eyesore on screen, hard to work with, hard to light, and in most cases dreary unless the sun's in the right place. But, in Dunkirk, the water is a character in and of itself. The camera angles slightly downward, bringing the audience deeper into the water, and Hoytema keeps it dark, unlit, and mysterious. In doing so, he underlines a brooding claustrophobia that permeates through the story with each character.

It's that claustrophobia, the inability to escape and the most easily understood type of fear in the film, which introduces us to the despair, panic, and hopelessness that each soldier faces during every minute of the evacuation. Whether their ship is bombed or torpedoed, whether they're shot at or pushed off a boat, whether their friend is still at their side or not, each soldier is facing his own nightmares and doing his best to face them, to overcome them, and to get home. As the film progresses Hoytema's nuanced touch brings to bare the crushing feelings that each person faces when in the gaze of coming death.

Those feelings of doom are held up by some of the most magnificent sound design I've encountered. The gunshots; the bombs; the plane engines; the soundtrack. It quickly becomes clear (after comparative viewing) that seeing the movie in IMAX actually makes a difference for once. Nolan's attention to detail fully matures in Dunkirk in the accompaniment of a strenuous, gut wrenching, sweat inducing, adrenaline pumping soundtrack. There's a certain rise in backing music, a quick and constant repetition of the strings that mimics a ticking clock, which is used to build up action scenes, but Hans Zimmer instead uses that idea in perpetuity with the help of an actual ticking clock, infusing the music with an insistent urgency that, from the first moments of disaster, never lets up. This soundtrack, coupled with incredible sound design, creates a mood of impending doom, of inevitable disaster, of a defeat just around the bend. It plays a huge part in the climactic scenes where the stress and relief are palpable in equal measure.

The sound design not only creates a suffocating atmosphere but also becomes an important plot point. Every detail in this movie matters, and the sound is no exception. When a certain plane's engines signal protection and safety; when the gentle lapping of waves against your boat means salvation; when the echo of an explosion means not that you'll soon drown but that your attacker failed; when your countrymen applaud your efforts... those sounds mean something and Nolan signifies every one of them.

It's an accomplishment in and of itself that Nolan delivers more of a horror movie than most horror movies. Dunkirk serves up the most gut-wrenching scenes I've watched in years, oftentimes forcing me to clutch at the armrest or grimace away. This is not for the faint of heart. In fact, if you have a phobia of the ocean, or fire, or the sky, or anything in between then consider this my warning: this will be too much for you. Short of experiencing drowning in a shipwreck or being shot in the dark, huddled next to your friends, this movie is as close as most people will ever come to true horror.

This is not a movie that signifies war in the way that other movies have over the last 70 years. It's a typical attribute to glorify war, to show the heroism of killing the enemy and saving your brothers in arms (Saving Private Ryan) or the dependency on the fleeting feeling of being on the edge of both life and death (The Hurt Locker). But Dunkirk is a movie that highlights some of the most difficult choices that any person could possibly make, and the characters herein don't make the right choices all the time. These characters scrape and push and turn on each other in order to get one, torturous step closer to home, all in the face of an oncoming enemy, an impending doom, that is so revelatory that they'd rather turn off their humanity for a moment than face the fact that life is a fleeting affair, all in trying to win.

That's the true beauty of Nolan's masterpiece, his pièce de résistance: triumph. Now, the story of Dunkirk is not one of overcoming enormous odds and vanquishing the enemy, it is one of overcoming enormous odds and saving hundreds of thousands of lives from that enemy. As Winston Churchill, himself, said to the House of Commons, the evacuation at Dunkirk represents one of the worst military disasters in British history; had the evacuation failed then the United Kingdom would've been unable to muster up any force significant enough to aid in further Allied efforts for the rest of the war. That's exactly what Nolan tries to show us. Dunkirk does not show a triumphant victory, it shows the simple, miraculous, celebratory, applause-worthy triumph of surviving.

The best movies are the ones that make you feel something. And I don't mean they make you laugh, or smile, or make you hate the villain. I mean they make you really feel something in the way that only a human experience can. The graciousness in someone's eyes when you go out of your way to help them; that sensation in the pit of your stomach when all your stress and anxiety suddenly disappears; the satisfaction that you've done something productive for a cause beyond yourself. Nolan wants us to feel something, and Dunkirk is a movie to watch in order to feel something. You don't watch it if you want action, or a romance, or the beautifully patriotic dramatization of war efforts and how heroic they are, as Dunkirk displays nothing of the sort. Rather, this is the movie you watch when you need to feel human again, to understand the lengths that a person will go to in order to get home, an act that 8 billion people take for granted as being the commute after work.

For over 300,000 souls, the evacuation of Dunkirk was not just a commute home, it was a life changing experience and, thanks to Nolan, Dunkirk is an experience as well and as close to the understanding, the real understanding, of war that any of us will get. It is the single most immersive, wholly real, and subtly emotive motion picture that I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing.

The memory of Dunkirk and of this film is not of a singularly remarkable speech given in dramatic repose in the face of oncoming disaster, it is not of a musical crescendo that's forever hummed by fans in the sleepless hours of the night as homage, it is not of slow motion extravaganzas, it is not of the hero coming to the rescue, it is not of epic explosions; it is a memory of the story, of sacrifice, and of survival, it is one of horror, of fear, and of strength, it is of the people.

 
 

TL;DR: When anxious, my knees shake. I can't imagine how I'd fare in the cold climate of war but Dunkirk has given me my first glimpse. The panic, the fear, the hopelessness... they're things I hate to feel but the triumphant nature in which Nolan displays them is a profound and moving experience. A country is not one man, or a name, or a place; a country is the people and the lengths to which it will go in order to help those people. In that regard, Dunkirk is the most revelatory and beautiful film I've had the pleasure of watching.

  • Acting – 20 / 20
  • Story – 20 / 20
  • Cinematography – 20 / 20
  • Soundtrack – 10 / 10
  • Entertainment Factor – 7 / 10
  • Drama/War – 8 / 10
  • Other – 9 / 10
 

Grade A = 94 / 100