Before sitting down for Dunkirk, one would do well to practice a few breathing exercises, make a stop at the restroom, and maybe stuff a pocket or two with some napkins (for sweat mopping). The marriage of performance, sound, structure, and downright astonishing visuals makes Dunkirk the ultimate moviegoing experience — one which, if you wait for home release, is a missed opportunity of the highest order. I don’t care how big your TV is, how loud your sound system can go, or how out of the way your nearest IMAX theater is. Take the drive, spend the money, and GET READY. Because once Dunkirk gets going (oh, about 2 seconds after it begins) it simply does not let up. I will say it again and I’ll say it as nice as I can: If you wait on this one, you blew it, and nothing you say can make you less wrong.
Nolan has made an atypical war picture, eschewing the free pass issued with the genre which allows one to make a three hour epic, instead delivering a streamlined, virtually bloodless thriller with all the prestige (ha!) of pictures like Saving Private Ryan with absolutely no filler. At 106 minutes it’s much shorter than the bulk of Nolan’s work, and it exudes a confidence that places him on the shortlist of all-time great cinematic storytellers. Although he’s in a rare studio/filmmaker situation where any of his inclinations toward excess could be fostered, it’s Nolan’s restraint which brings Dunkirk the urgency it requires, all the while using every tool of the medium to drive home a long list of thematic beats which both celebrate the power of seeking honor in the face of evil while defining said evil as something borne of fear.
For one thing, Dunkirk never shows us an enemy face. Not even once. The threat of the German military is all but abstract. We see their bullets, their bombs, and the destruction wrought by every shot. We see their fighter planes and we feel their looming presence at every moment, but never are we asked to engage with the enemy on a personal level. That’s simply not what the film is about, and it’s this dissolution of the enemy as an individual that separates Dunkirk from just about every war flick ever made. Simultaneously, the depiction of the German forces as a singular figure of doom makes its juxtaposition against the multi-faceted force for good represented by the Allied fighters that much more powerful. It’s also a clever way to avoid wasting screentime trying to characterize individual villains. Don’t get me wrong. I will always appreciate recognition of the fact that many enemy soldiers are good men in a shit situation, but Dunkirk is not a movie about the ethics of war — it’s a tale of survival.
More specifically it’s the true story of the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk. At this time in the war Germany had occupied much of France, and 400,000 Allied fighters had their backs to the water, waiting, as indicated by the title cards, for a miracle. When it became apparent that using naval ships to evacuate these men served only to create giant, expensive targets in the shape of indispensable vessels, the navy called for civilian sailors on the other side of the channel to join the rescue effort.
Nolan, whose career emerged from a film with a gimmicky timeline has incorporated a novel chronology to his latest effort as well, only now it’s less of a novelty than it is an efficient device for ratcheting up tension. There are three distinct settings which make up three overlapping timelines. The first is the beach. These sequences occur over the week prior to the rescue boats’ arrival. The second is on the SS Mark Rylance, which occurs in the single day leading up to the rescue. The third is in the skies, amongst a trio of planes which, being the most urgently shot action, smartly covers only a single hour. Nolan bounces between these three settings with confidence (using cleverly deployed visual cues to sync the timelines, if only for a second), milking each for maximum effect, and cutting away with an admirable proficiency and an eye toward the film as a whole (a relatively new Nolan superpower). With Dunkirk, Nolan has reached his most refined — his most pure. And even though he isn’t exploring huge, world-bending ideas, the audience is not left wanting. There’s no time to want. There is juuuust enough breathing room for the viewer not to be overwhelmed. No more, no less, and while many war flicks have found great success in showing the horrors of battle, few put the viewer inside of it quite like Dunkirk.
Many a click-bait article will falsely declare that Nolan “hates” Netflix (or that Taylor Swift “won” the internet), when really all he ever says is that he sees the theatrical experience as integral to his work. I like that he hangs on to this notion, and those who watch Dunkirk at home are seeing a different, inferior movie.
But I’m beating a dead horse here. You ARE going to see this. Nolan IS going to win the Best Director Oscar (at least). There’s simply no need to sell anyone on this. And since there’s really nothing about it I didn’t like, I will instead continue to gush.
Hans Zimmer may have just given us his finest work with Dunkirk. The obvious inspiration for his score is the sound of a ticking clock. It’s a bit reminiscent of his third-act score in Inception, during which time the metaphorical clock was most certainly ticking, but since Dunkirk is an exercise in nail-biting tension, the evocation of a ticking time-bomb remains the baseline throughout the entire film, swelling in volume and increasing in tempo as called for in the moment, oftentimes punctuated by deafening gunfire, designed to make your chest resonate with each burst. If you need another reason to spend money on IMAX, please make it the sound design.
Tom Hardy performs mostly with his eyes. There’s very little dialogue in the film, and Hardy’s is muffled behind an aviation mask/helmet, but he crushes it nonetheless. Despite being the master of weird voices, it’s performances like this one which cement what we all suspected with Locke: Tom Hardy can do anything.
If there’s one critique to level at the film (and there isn’t) it’s that, amidst the calamity, the individual characters feel underdeveloped. I can understand the source of this notion, but must offer my whole-hearted disagreement. Sure, I struggle to name a character, but I’ve already seen the movie where we get to know our boys on the front line — the movie where the casualties hurt us emotionally because we’ve become friends with the whole gang. However, by sidestepping the need for character exposition we are made to feel the urgency of each moment. Do you think his ragtag group of men from a long list of different companies had the chance to shake hands and tell stories about home? Absolutely not. Yet, when characters inevitably do suffer injuries and death, it hurts all the same, because Dunkirk makes it clear that it could have been anyone. War is only a morality play on a large scale, and it’s that specific scale which emerges as the film’s thesis. Much in the same way that the main character of Inception is the titular device, the main character of Dunkirk is morality itself. We’re being treated to a story of a time when this “character” was being challenged on a global scale and any place it could pop in and shine was a huge victory.
When Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) is told that his mission is a death wish, and that he’ll never make it home, he responds that if he doesn’t press forward there won’t be any home to go back to. It’s at this moment when we see precisely why Dunkirk is a tale worth telling. It says, in no unspecific terms, that doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but it’s always right.
An added note: Dunkirk illuminated an aspect of Nolan’s style that I could never quite put my finger on for his entire career. I’ve always criticized Nolan’s ability to shoot action. The rooftop fight scene between Batman, Catwoman, and the cops toward the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises is perhaps the purest example. The fighting is very well choreographed and the stakes are appropriate, but the scene feels like nothing. There’s no poetry to it. Same goes for the mid-movie car chase in The Dark Knight. It’s just a big old blob of grey. And even though it ends with a huge bang (that truck flip, son), the sequence feels like dead air until it does. What it ultimately comes down to is structure, and for a filmmaker whose style is defined by having no style at all (credit to Ryan for that wonderful line), it’s easy to feel robbed of a much more cinematic moment. Dunkirk is Nolan bursting through his own action ceiling. Rather than using tight choreography or kinetic visual blocking, he has instead found a way to deliver sweeping action in controlled bursts, doled out by the three-setting structure. When one plane takes a shot at another, we get one quick pass before moving into another setting. Before you know it, we’re back, and since the scene itself is not in need of being anchored as a singular set-piece, each action beat is given room to breathe, while we, the audience are barely permitted to do so.
I’ll have to see this again before I start saying that Dunkirk is Nolan’s best work, but in a mostly flawless career, the fact that I’m seriously considering it is the highest of praise. Wherever it stands, God bless Christopher Nolan for carving out a niche where he can do what he wants how he wants, all the while fighting the good fight for film as a technical craft AND an art form. Pay the money. Go to the movies. Appreciate how much love for the medium is coursing through every frame.
Do NOT sleep on this. You will regret it.
Dunkirk opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.