I love movies. I love writing about them. Hope you like reading what I write.
Let’s see if the hype was worth it.
Dunkirk is the long-awaited epic war film written & directed by Christopher Nolan. It is dedicated to chronicling the Dunkirk military disaster in Word War II. This was when 400,000 British and French troops became stuck on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, awaiting rescue as the enemy approached.
Despite outward appearances, I’m not a Nolan fanboy. The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar are flawed films despite their epic enjoyability.
I also think that Christopher Nolan has been fundamentally misjudged as an artist. He’s not “cold” as many label him, drawing comparisons in his films’ tones to the work of Stanley Kubrick. No. He is a director with a tremendous appreciation for the image as Kubrick did, but he is a humanist director, not a cold one. Remember, 2001: A Space Odyssey is about humanity giving way to the next form of life, whereas Interstellar was about preserving human life.
His narratives are actively interested in people. Just because people are doing stuff doesn’t mean that they aren’t expressing the internal. Perhaps because of his big IMAX-sized canvas being so large and all encompassing, cinemanarrative dissonance takes place and we assume he doesn’t care about the small.
Dunkirk goes some way to validating this interpretation.
One of the three storylines over which this film runs takes place on the beaches of Dunkirk itself, following a relatively anonymous young soldier as he tries to get out and survive. We find this boy in a completely impossible situation. At this point, he’s no longer fighting against the Germans, he’s fighting everyone and everything he can, just to get out alive. We don’t even get a “I’m going back to see my girl” reason for this. He just ferociously wants to live. His journey is not bogged down by details, but wracked with nail-biting tension.
This storyline lasts for a week of film-time. So how do you keep that tension at such a high level for about 100 minutes of real-time? You write the craziest timeline I’ve ever seen in a film. We have a second storyline following an old man and his sons as they travel across the channel to fetch stranded soldiers. This takes place over the course of one day, film-time, but still intercuts with the beach. For once, day becoming night in an instant is not the mark of talentlessness, but mastery.
The final interweaving tale is of an RAF Spitfire patrol protecting the boats of the evacuation from the air. In terms of raw emotional power, this is arguably the weakest storyline, but this is not supposed to be overly emotional. This is where Nolan IS cold. As cold, relaxed and clinical as the pilots have to be to get the job done. It’s some of the most thrilling action I’ve ever seen in a plane.
On the beach we see such desperation from our brave sons. Everytime they try to escape, their boats are bombarded by an invisible enemy. All this is underscored by the tick-tick of some of composer Hans Zimmer’s best work yet.
The boat is the Homefront. The family on-board are under no illusions as to the danger they are heading into, but they’re going in anyway simply because it’s the right thing to do. This is not a patriotic war film, but it is definitely a celebration of humanity at its finest.
This, in my view, is a culmination of Christopher Nolan’s filmography to date. I think that finally I can put him further up the ladder of great filmmakers. Watching Dunkirk, you not only see a great, thrilling, intimate war film, probably the best conflict WWII film of the century so far, but you also get to understand Nolan’s style and substance even more than before.
Nolan’s threeway editing from across most of his films comes to a head here. Maybe David Lynch is wrong. Maybe duality is not a part of life. Maybe it’s triality.
Maybe we are all the young men on that beach and the fishermen trying our best despite the odds to help them and we are the artisan pilots of the Royal Air Force, finely cutting through the sky to do good by humanity.
Do you see what this movie has done to me? It’s left me utterly breathless. This is a masterwork.
Recommended Scenario: If you want unbearable tension and moments of beautiful humanity.
P.S. Yes, Harry Styles was excellent, now go see this.