Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ an unnerving master class in war filmmaking
By Matthew C. Brown. 1. The Mole. One Week 2. The Sea. One Day 3. The Air. One Hour.
These three temporal locations are the focal points of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The measure of time after each refers to the duration of the events we see in each location. In Dunkirk, as in many of Christopher Nolan’s films, time is a muddied, subjective, and hounding mess. Christopher Nolan has always been a master at slipping between timelines and perspectives without the audience realizing it. Dunkirk does this masterfully, showing multiple events from different perspectives and making sure the audience doesn’t realize they’ve just gone back in time a few minutes, an hour, a day, or days until exactly when they should.
Nolan sets the tone from the beginning with five soldiers walking along the street. Propaganda flyers falling from the sky tell them they are surrounded and should surrender. Just as soon as this message is received loud shots ring out, startling against the silence, and suddenly the soldiers are running for their lives. Four of the five soldiers are gunned down as they flee, but one manages to hop over a wooden gate and take cover.
This is Tommy, the film’s unofficial center. Tommy reaches the beach to see hundreds of thousands of soldiers standing idly, waiting nervously for their salvation. Tommy is just one more, and he is now in a second-by-second struggle for survival. The clock is ticking.
“The Evacuation of Dunkirk” (or “The Miracle of Dunkirk,” as it is referred to by the British) was one of the greatest military blunders in history. 400,000 Allied soldiers, having been pushed back and surrounded by German forces in France, were stranded on the beach with nowhere to go. Dunkirk is very nearly the narrowest point between the French and British coasts and thus the shortest distance across the English Channel, but the British did not have enough ships to risk rescuing the stranded soldiers which were the bulk of the British army and other Allied forces.
Instead, many small civilian boats were commissioned by the British Navy, and many British citizens came to the rescue of the soldiers. While the soldiers waited out the week, German bomber and fighter planes would bomb and strafe them in three areas: The mole, an eight-foot-wide, half mile long, breakwater wall that stretched out into the sea and was used as a makeshift dock; the beach; and the ships attempting to cross the channel. They also had German U-boats (submarines) to contend with.
Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is breathtaking. The underwater shots, and the canted angles of sinking ships and angling planes coupled with the relentless pacing and Hans Zimmer’s ever-present, ever-dissonant score makes for a heart pounding, claustrophobic, and often nauseating experience. The horrors of the moment are so truthfully conveyed that viewers may need to look away at times to remind themselves it is just a film. You may even feel like it’s you out there on that beach, or worse, in the water.
The element that makes this war film different from all others is that, except for one shot near the end, an enemy soldier is never directly seen throughout the entire film. Nolan’s decision to make the enemy not only faceless but disembodied helps to draw the viewer in and ensures that every attack or gun shot is as much of a surprise to the audience as it is to the soldiers experiencing it.
This film was a colossal undertaking, and in terms of its realism, one that can be and ought to be compared with the greatest war films of all time. Films such as Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line come to mind. It is a little surprising that the film is rated PG-13 and not R because even though it is less gory than your typical war film, and objectively there is nothing specific in it to make the movie R-rated, it finds other ways to become incredibly intense and terrifying. Leave it to Christopher Nolan, ever the master, to rely on film technique, rather than blood and gore, to convey the horrors of war.
Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Produced by Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas.
Screenplay by Christopher Nolan.
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, and James D’Arcy.
Rated PG-13 for ceaseless war-time anxiety.
9 out of 10