I know I know. I watch a lot of films and get excited about them all. First Wonder Woman, then Baby Driver, now Dunkirk. But, we have to talk about Dunkirk. I don’t have the words to describe this film, but I can try. I don’t like seeing a movie after it gets lots of renowned and hype. Too many expectations, star power, “renown”. I thought maybe Dunkirk was being celebrated because it’s by Christopher Nolan, and it’s yet another WWII film.
Dunkirk is instead a masterpiece, exhilarating and beautiful in it’s execution and structure. It is a grand yet intimately visceral story. The film centers around a short period of time during the famous evacuation of the Allied forces trapped on beaches of Dunkirk, France, surrounded by Germans, in 1940. The narrative of the film is simple-thousands of soldiers trapped by the sea, England visible across the channel, being killed in droves and scrambling to stay alive and escape. Yet the way this story is told and shaped is radical and bold.
There isn’t a traditional set up and story arc. There isn’t backstory. There isn’t character development in the traditional sense, and hardly any dialogue throughout. What we get are three intersecting storylines of one story, between the men on the beaches (across one week), the civilians coming to save them (across one day), and a few pilots fighting the faceless enemy in the air (thrilling across one hour).
We are thrown into the action from the first harrowing sequence, and do not get typical scenes so much as a sequence of events in the mad struggle for survival. Each storyline compliments the larger story, each a layer in grand, dreadful, human chapter in war. From frightening and intense sequences of men escaping sinking ships, flying through beautiful skies to shoot down a German fighter, running a wounded man across a beach as bombs drop around. Time is layered and the action is nearly chaotic but exquisitely structured.
We focus on just a few, often nameless soldiers and civilians, who do not get much dialogue or history. It is hard to describe how our connection and empathy for these characters is created, but it is. It’s not in the way we are used to or expect. We are immediately in the moment, in a terrifying crisis, and we get to know these characters by how they face fear, dread, how they are noble and help one another, how they are hurt, the emotions behind their eyes. It’s not in overwrought moments but in the visceral and intimate experience of war we share with them. The two pilots played by Tom Hardy and Jacob Lowden, stoic and brave, maneuvering under pressure. The young soldiers, who include the excellent Fiona Whitehead and Harry Styles, vulnerable and horrified. The civilians, including Mark Rylance, who sail into a war zone unarmed, fear and determination in their faces. We see the shattered psyches of “shell shocked” men in subtle paranoia and anger. We see to compassion in the characters faces and their individual humanity. Even with relentless and random death, there is a vein of morality in small moments.
The visual experience of the film is beautiful, shot on film with majestic land and seascapes. There were so many shots in the film that my jaw dropped, including the beauty and realism of the beach and stormy skies, the sunset around thousands of men as they ships were savagely sunk. The color palate is cool, blues and greys, yet rich. There is a sense of epic space and claustrophobia.
The action scenes are inexplicable to me, created with real ships and planes, thousands of extras, rich in detail, chaotic but perfectly paced, destructive and dread inducing but not over the top. Nolan creates his story through action and it is executed better then he has ever done before (and he made The Dark Knight). The stunning score by Hans Zimmer, heart-pounding, classical and droning, fully shapes the film.
The film is non-traditional in that it does not give you a flowing and complex storyline but rather a simple narrative completely built. It doesn’t give you characters so much as humanity. It’s relentless in its action. I could see why some people may find the film challenging. I found it immersive, a film as great art.