“A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.”
Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite directors. He’s directed a few of my favorite films: The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Interstellar, the Prestige. I even somewhat named my son, Nolan Sterling Sage, after him (it’s actually a Batman reference since my 1st son’s name is Kal and we needed to start our own Justice League). When I first saw that teaser trailer for his upcoming World War II film project, I knew I had to see it. So I did.
Dunkirk is set in 1940, before America entered the war, and it centers around the events which took place in Dunkirk, France. A spearhead of Nazi forces separated the British Expeditionary Force from their French and Belgian allies, effectively trapping the British against the coast. The Germans formed a wall around the Allied forces but halted their advance upon them, lest the Allies break through. In the days that followed, British soldiers waited for ships to evacuate them across the English Channel, sometimes queuing for hours in chest deep water with home only 26 miles away.
The British were reluctant to send too many ships, though, in case they were needed for the defense of the British coast and indeed many ferrying vessels were sunk by German attack planes and torpedoes. As part of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation, the British eventually launched the “Dunkirk little ships”, private civilian-owned vessels commandeered as shuttles for the beleaguered soldiers. (spoilers: highlight to reveal) Though early estimates postulated that the British could only successfully save 30,000 to 40,000 men, with the frantic aid of the little ships they were able to rescue over 300,000.
This came to be known as the “Miracle of Dunkirk”, and indeed it truly was.
“On Sunday 2 June, the Dean of St Paul’s referred to the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’. During the following week papers were filled with letters from readers making an obvious association. It was remembered that the Archbishop of Canterbury had announced that the Day of National Prayer might well be a turning point, and it was obvious to many that God had answered the nation’s collective prayer with the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’. The evidence of God’s intervention was clear for those who wished to see it; papers had written of calm seas and the high mist which interfered with the accuracy of German bombers.”
I wasn’t versed in this particular area of World War II history, so a lot of the film was new ground for me, delightedly so. What a powerful moment in time to adapt to film! When we left the theater, one of my friends said: “Can Christopher Nolan just do a movie for every battle in history?” After Dunkirk was over, I returned to my abode excited to perform a little research in this area and it’s one of the great triumphs of the human spirit during the trying years of the Second World War, this “Dunkirk Spirit”.
The film is dedicated to all those whose lives were impacted by the events at Dunkirk.
Nolan takes great experimental strides in Dunkirk, even further than he had in the past, by toying with the structure of film. How accessible this film ends up being with casual summer moviegoers remains to be seen but audiences will always vote with their dollar. The film is organized into three separate plot threads which interweave at times, allowing us to see and re-see events from the perspectives of different characters. This three-form structure is apparently known as a triptych, a term typically referring to paintings with three panels or sections.
In the beginning of the film, we’re introduced to the characters and situations which will occupy each of the three threads. Dunkirk begins on land, part 1: the Mole. This will show us the predicament of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers stranded on the shore with nowhere to go, the Luftwaffe harassing them with bombs. We’re told that part 1: the Mole represents a week.
Part 2: the sea places us aboard one of the civilian ships sent out to rescue evacuees. Along the way they observe dogfights and the sinking of military vessels, and they rescue a shell-shocked soldier determined not to go back to Dunkirk. This second part represents a day.
Part 3: the air takes us to the skies with three British Spitfire pilots sent to provide air support for the Dunkirk operation. This third thread represents only an hour of time but it contains some of the movie’s most intense scenes. The dogfights are spectacular against the gray sea and the white sky, and there’s a real sense of immediacy to them as one of the pilots exceeds his fuel ration to try to take out a German bomber.
Dunkirk is pure Chris Nolan. It represents everything you see Nolan films for: all of his vision, his skill, his heart for realism, his devotion to practical effects, his sense of scale, even the characteristic “Nolan crescendo” involving a speech/monologue set to a rapid-fire of images and booming music is present here. Yes, that also means other “Nolanisms” are here: the dialogue is near impossible to understand and the sound editing ramps up the volume on the soundtrack to ear-shattering levels, but these are the characteristics Nolan is known and, in many cases, beloved for.
Prior to its release, I saw a lot of critics saying that Dunkirk was Nolan’s best film so far. I’ve learned by now to take mainstream journalistic hyperbole with an entire stick of salt, but I knew at the same time that I’d very likely love this film. While I can’t vouch for the now predictable statement “literally the Citizen Kane of our time” applied to Dunkirk willy-nilly, or to any film for that matter, I can vouch for the sheer quality of Nolan’s latest.
This is an example of a work created at the height of its creator’s skill and confidence. It’s as if Nolan has had every shackle removed, allowed to do whatever he wanted here. The result is a war film quite unlike any other, indeed a movie unlike any other, possessing powerful impact without gratuitous sentimentality, breathless pace without fatigue, and realism without tedium.
Dunkirk is an unorthodox moviegoing experience that you must see.
The 8-bit Review
Christopher Nolan has made more than a few films with fantasy elements but this is one with nothing supernatural or sci-fi about it at all. Still, the disorienting cinematography captures scenes in such a way as to aim for surrealism. This gives an otherwise intense and gritty film a kind of dreamlike quality. In a lot of ways, Dunkirk reminds me of Stanley Kubrick’s work. Kubrick was a renown perfectionist and he often employed shots where everything is lined up perfectly, such as no perspective in real life typically yields. Nolan seems to have caught on to that a bit in Dunkirk. Some scenes are so perfectly realized so as to be “more” than real, surreal.
There are so many memorable images in Dunkirk. It’s a film of isolated images, of scenes over narrative, making it seem like a moving painting rather than a blockbuster released in July. The scene of a pilot standing in front of a burning aircraft in the twilight is unforgettable. Its color contrast, its peace, its stillness, its violence, its angle sears it into the memory. Another one of the incredible sequences in the film, and there are several, sees a wall of water rising as this ship begins to sink, only the water passes from the left of the screen to the right since the ship is capsizing. Its strangeness makes it even more horrifying than watching people drowning.
Dunkirk benefits from loyalty to practical effects over computer generated imagery. An additional layer of realism was created through using real boats and planes that were from the era. The Spitfires you see through the dogfights, some of the best in the history of cinema, are real planes. There’s an instinctual connection to this film because of these efforts which makes all of the action and explosions much more impactful than if we were merely watching a “CGI-fest”. CGI-fatigue is a rising problem in audience reactions to modern films but I’m happy to report there’s none of that in Dunkirk.
Hans Zimmer returns to collaborate with Nolan for yet another dissonant, percussive, apocalyptic soundtrack. The score is as focused and perfected as the visuals, centered around the motif of a watch’s second hand ticking. What would otherwise be a repetitive and incessant noise is used in Dunkirk to audibly underscore the dire situation of the British soldiers stuck waiting for the next ship on the horizon, knowing the enemy could come for them at any moment. With three timelines threaded throughout the film, this deliberate choice to evoke the passing of time and impatience musically is a stroke of obvious genius. It’s its own kind of exposition in a film with little spoken dialogue.
Nolan described the constant crescendo of the score as influenced by the structure of the film and their relation:
“I interwove the three timelines in such a way that there’s a continual feeling of intensity. Increasing intensity. So I wanted to build the music on similar mathematical principals. So there’s a fusion of music and sound effects and picture that we’ve never been able to achieve before.”
This director is clearly aware of the perception of his films being a part of their storytelling processes.
In the hands of less proficient filmmakers, this movie could have very easily have been a boring mess with repetitive scenes and a confusing layout. That the film engages at all is mystifying considering these extra challenges for the audience. How many movies that mess around with typical linear storytelling structures turn out to be as accessible and captivating? Instead, the triptych structure of a week on the beach, a day on the Channel, and an hour in the air in Dunkirk allows the film to feel like a sequence of images and moments but not truly tied together by narrative, much like the way in which we remember our own dreams. The movie opens as if in the middle of a story and it ends without true closure. Everything in between runs at a frantic, relentless pace. This was, after all, only a small part of World War II.
Even the characters (who are fiction, not historical figures) are just passing faces. Many of them are never even named. If or when they die, they’re swallowed up by the great horror of war. They’re human but at the same time they’re merely faces, and we expect them to die in the war, and that adds to the sadness. They are, as one character put it, “our children” sent off to fight the war but their families know their names. We don’t, and that’s all.
In this manner, there are no real leading actors, no protagonists (since the resolution of the story is equally meaningful to all the British soldiers), though there are several characters we see the events through. This is the classic sense of the word “epic” where a huge cast is employed, playing out over a historical sequence, without definite “heroes”, in the Hollywood sense. What you do get are characters which feel intensely real, almost archetypal, but you feel you can be sure they must’ve existed.
Nolan described it thusly:
“…I realized my driving force wasn’t just to get away from artifice but the very types of artifice I myself had been using, to try and force myself into a new direction. So doing this story – no, I didn’t want to have any scenes of old generals looking at maps, or any 28-year-olds cast as teenagers. But I also didn’t want the conventional theatrics of giving everyone a backstory, and some quiet scene where they could relive it, and talk about themselves, and how they felt. I wanted a very lean, stripped-down approach where your empathetic response is based on the really unique thing that movies have – where you can empathize with a character very, very quickly. I wanted there to be an immediate, visceral connection.”
So though we know the outcome of the film, or we could easily find out by seeking any source on history, its the playing out of each of these human lives in one great drama that provides the sense of tension and thrill we seek when we pay good money to watch a movie. We might’ve already known how things turn out in the end, but watching proven actors portray palpable human suffering and survival is what drives Dunkirk forward and makes it interesting beyond the special effects. It’s respect for the dignity and value of human life sets it apart, right down to the scene where a commanding officer decides his fate by risking his life to save the French soldiers left behind. Without the bagging of back stories and even much in the way of character development, this is a streamlined film.
Nolan described Dunkirk as less a war film than a movie about survival, a suspense film. Really, WWII is irrelevant beyond setting up the situation facing the British soldiers at Dunkirk. There’s very little fighting or exchange of gunfire. Most of the film feels like a disaster film with desperate survivors clinging on for dear life.
Contributing to this is the fact that the film never shows the Nazis. Not explicitly. You know they’re there and you catch glimpses of them out of focus in the third act, but all you get for a sense of their presence are bullets viciously tearing through walls and bodies. I found the sound design for the Nazi gunfire evocative of animal noises. There’s a kind of bestial savagery to the violence of bullets ripping apart metal and wood and brick and flesh. It’s a fascinatingly fresh way to portray the villains of history without humanizing them in any way.
Dunkirk represents the first time that Christopher Nolan adapted a real historical event. 97-year-old veteran of the Battle of Dunkirk, Ken Sturdy, saw the film and wept:
“I had the privilege of seeing that film tonight and I am saddened by it because of what happened on that beach. It didn’t have a lot of dialogue. It didn’t need any of the dialogue because it told the story visually and it was so real. I never thought I would see that again. It was just like I was there again. I was 20 when that happened, but watching the movie, I could see my old friends again and a lot of them died later in the war… Don’t just go to the movie for entertainment. Think about it. And when you become adults, keep thinking. Tonight I cried because it’s never the end… We the human species are so intelligent and we do such astonishing things. We can fly to the moon but we still do stupid things. So when I see the film tonight, I see it with a certain kind of sadness. Because what happened back then in 1940, it’s not the end.”
When I reached the end of the movie, I had a familiar sensation bubbling up within my mind. What was that even about? At first glance, the seeming senselessness of the violence and the tragedy of so many young lives lost without fanfare can make the film seem pointless, and yet, is that perhaps its point? War is ugly. I appreciate that Dunkirk remembers that. There’s no glamorization of it here. Yes, there are heroes, silent, unsung heroes, but they’re ordinary men of flesh and blood, not exalted saints or untouchable knights. They’re simple people who did what they knew to be right. They’re the soldiers who stood against evil Nazism and prevented the war from succumbing to that putrid ideology. Against the awful face of a world-consuming war, these small lights shone but briefly. Of course their suffering was not senseless. Who knows where we would be today without them?
It’s a thought-provoking film but Dunkirk asks no questions. It doesn’t need to.
Family Friendliness: 8/10
Dunkirk is rated PG-13 and not R here in the states. It’s far less gory of a war film than many others in the history of cinema. There is plenty of violence seen in the film and a few F-words used, but on the whole it’s far from a gratuitous movie. It doesn’t revel in a kind of stylized hyper-violence such as has infected nearly every avenue of entertainment. Its power is in its historicity and realness. For that, so what’s past is never forgotten, I actually highly suggest you bring your children to see this film. Not so very young that they won’t know what’s going on, but this is a great movie to educate the younger generation.
This director is famous for working with his “Nolan crew”, a select few actors who make recurring appearances in his body of work. Expect to see Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy (who is, amusingly, still stuck behind a mask for almost the whole movie, even after playing Bane in The Dark Knight Rises). AND don’t forget there’s a Michael Caine cameo tucked in here! Don’t look for it. Listen for it.
Dunkirk benefits from extremely believable performances, spearheaded by Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh. Some younger talent includes Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, and Barry Keoghan.
As solid and respectable as every performance is, it didn’t seem to me that there was any stand out performance (maybe Hardy’s or Murphy’s), as many of these characters seem to simply exist. Murphy and Rylance have some intense exchanges of dialogue together, Keoghan gives a pitiable speech, and Hardy’s character shows some real weight of emotion at the last, but there’s no one performance that moved me to tears or passion or fear. Whitehead most closely resembles a point of view character but he’s not pushed through the gamut of Hollywood emotions like we’d normally expect from a lead. This film seems to benefit from that, since again there are not so much characters in this film as there is this intense situation in which people suffered.
Actor Cillian Murphy, who plays a nameless soldier, said of the film:
“What first struck me about Dunkirk was that it wasn’t an American war movie, which so many of the great movies about war have been. If you were making a list of great modern war movies, I can’t think of a British film over the last 30 or 40 years that you would necessarily place on it. So, I think this appealed to Chris as a filmmaker because he recognised something in this story that was hugely unique and that audiences wouldn’t necessarily have seen before.”
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Dunkirk cares more about how you feel while you watch it than what you think about it as its happening. It’s a transportive film, the kind you relate to at a gut level. Its relentlessness teeters just at the brink of being exhausting without plunging into that abyss. It’s hard to describe and it was even harder to write this review because of it. Actually, this is one of the hardest reviews I’ve written on this blog, and there’s so much more that I feel I want to say about Dunkirk that I cannot find the words for.
Unorthodox in its presentation but nowhere near as confusing as I thought it was going to be when it started setting up its three timelines in its opening scenes. Once again, Nolan has created another masterpiece in a new genre for him. This film made me very excited to see what he’ll turn out next.
Aggregated Score: 9.1
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