“Dunkirk” is not your typical war movie. It is not about a group of people going off into battle, attempting to complete a mission, and learning something about themselves or the nature of life or man’s inhumanity towards man. It is, instead, best understood as a visceral experience. Not visceral for the amount of blood shed or incredible violence, but rather for writer-director Christopher Nolan’s ability to use sound and visuals to put the viewer in the middle of each of the three stories he tells as a part of the larger narrative.
Although the three parts of the movie—essentially land, sea, and air—take place over different amounts of time, “Dunkirk” continually switches back and forth between them. The result is that the week-long land portion, the day-long sea portion, and the hour-long air portion feel nearly seamless and as though all are happening simultaneously.
I’m stopping now because I have a confession: it’s taken me an hour to write the above two paragraphs (137 words according to Word before I go back and edit them for the 20th time), and I’m still not happy with them. Everything I say about “Dunkirk” feels not quite right; not quite complete.
For instance, I very much want to say that “Dunkirk” is about as aggressively anti-narrative as a major Hollywood motion picture can be. However, it very much does have a story: there is the tale of the father, son, and young worker on the small boat crossing the channel. There is the story of the British soldier just trying to get back to England safely from the beach in France. There is the story of the fighter pilot doing his best to protect the soldiers and ships.
Then again, there isn’t necessarily a ton that happens in each of the stories over the film’s 107 minute runtime. The boat stops along the way to rescue a shell-shocked soldier who is terrified of returning to France (even to help with the evacuation). The pilot struggles in a dog fight. The soldier on the beach is continually thwarted in his attempts to leave the beach, repeatedly facing death.
The important thing about “Dunkirk,” and the reason that I would want to call it “as aggressively anti-narrative as a major Hollywood motion picture can be,” is that the way Nolan has structured the movie so much of that story feels of secondary importance. The experience isn’t the story—the reason the movie is brilliant isn’t in the story—it’s in the way it unfolds with the visuals and the sound. This is a war movie where, the first time a bullet is fired (and bullets have to be fired), I jumped out of my seat. It was a startling, unexpected, all-encompassing, gunshot. It is the first moment in the film where one starts to realize just what kind of a journey they’re about to go on, and the movie doesn’t let up.
Nolan’s visuals (the cinematography is by Hoyte Van Hoytema) offer not just the small scale thrills, the claustrophobia of being in the cockpit with the pilot or the small confines of the boat, or the sheer number of bodies trying to escape the beach on ships, but also the immensity of it all. It is a small boat on the Channel. It is a tiny plane in the sky. The 400,000 soldiers on the beach are but a drop in the bucket of what that beach could hold.
Here again is the problem with trying to describe the film – it is small and it is large at the same time. It is claustrophobic and immense. It is telling big stories and little ones and doesn’t care for doing it in a conventional style.
Then, there is Hans Zimmer’s score. Like the visuals, like the sound effects, the score is relentless. It drives the movie forward as it drives the audience to the edge of the seat. It makes one feel as though their heart is going to explode from its intensity. And, at the same time the score pushes one to the edge of their seat, the sound effects drive one cowering as far back as they can go.
We haven’t even gotten to the actors yet, and the intensity of the performances offered by Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, and the rest (yes, including Harry Styles). What is their to say about them? Hardy is the pilot and spends the vast majority of his portion of the movie with much of his face covered by a mask as he’s in the plane. We get his eyes and they keep one entranced. Murphy is the shell-shocked soldier picked up by Rylance’s boat captain. Murphy’s soldier is terrified and for good reason, and Rylance’s captain knows there’s not much that can be done for him. It’s horrifying. Branagh is the Commander in charge of the evacuation on the beach and offers, like Rylance, this amazing sort of courage in the face of disaster. Whitehead is our poor soldier trying to make his way home and continually being thwarted. His story might be the most heartbreaking of all… but is it? It is all incredibly heartbreaking, every bit of it.
Much has been made of the film’s relatively brief runtime, and an hour and 47 minutes does seem short for a filmmaker like Nolan who gave us two Batman movies that run more than two-and-a-half hours (and one which comes up 10 minutes short of that mark), as well as the nearly as long “Inception” and slightly longer “Interstellar.” And yet, one can’t imagine “Dunkirk” running any longer than it does. I have said it before and I’ll say it again – this is an intense film, and it is intense in every possible way. The impact of watching it on a big screen with great sound is amazing.
Now I’m something like 800 words further into this review than I was before and yet I don’t think I’ve mentioned the utter beauty of “Dunkirk.” The movie offers the sense of complete mastery by Nolan. There are spectacular images of danger and heroism and disaster and just beautiful shots of airplanes and boats and queues of soldiers. It is an experience and truly exciting.
“Dunkirk” is emotional, visceral, beautiful, intense filmmaking at its finest.
photo credit: Warner Bros.