Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ has a summer blockbuster release date because that’s the tentpole template within which the filmmaker works. However, as viscerally thrilling and technically stunning as the film might be (and oh lord is it ever), this is also a thoughtful and in some ways even experimental presentation of war.
The film is designed to plunge viewers into the midst of combat without conventional heroic narrative touchstones to grip for comfort or release. At its best, it can feel like the iconic opening of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (minus most of the entrails) extended to an exhaustingly intense and stunningly mounted feature-length running time.
As is Nolan’s style, ‘Dunkirk’ unfolds over several timelines that don’t always overlap in obvious ways. One thread follows soldiers and officers over the full course of the events as they struggle to evacuate 300,000 soldiers off the titular beach after a Nazi sneak attack. The other follows a father (Mark Rylance), his son and a friend, civilians who help with the evacuation on a single day. The third unfolds in roughly real time, an hour in the air for two pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) flying above the evacuation and fighting off enemy planes and bombers. All the stories connect, but not necessarily how you’d expect and never according to chronology. They allow the director to toy with perspective and perception in a film that captures the madness, anxiety and heroism that comes in the heat of messy and unpredictable combat.
For a filmmaker renowned for his attempts to make blockbuster entertainment cerebral, ‘Dunkirk’ often feels like a singularly focused and streamlined cinematic endeavor. Some metaphors and symbols get slipped in to underline themes, but nothing that halts the sensory and emotional assault for the sake of intellectual satisfaction. This is a film of sensation, thrusting viewers into various levels and tragedies of Dunkirk, and achieves its aims through pure cinematic experience. Recognizable faces appear, including Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, and Mark Rylance, yet the story has no real stars. The faces are famous to help viewers connect threads and recognize reoccurrences between the overlapping timelines, often in ways more painful than satisfying. Nolan has been criticized in the past for over-explaining through exposition to clarify his clockwork narratives. There’s none of that here. The characters are barely even named.
On a technical level, ‘Dunkirk’ might be the filmmaker’s most remarkable achievement to date. His last few features peaked with meticulously edited finales that weaved together multiple narratives and climaxes into a single stirring montage. ‘Dunkirk’ essentially extends that technique to a breathless 106 minutes to stunning effect. The colors of the photography are muted, but depth and clarity are astounding (especially in IMAX, 70mm, etc.). Everything is expertly framed and edited for maximum impact, but also feels like a window to a world that thrusts viewers into the middle of the combat, whether it be high above the ground in a cramped cockpit or in the open air on the beach where England is clearly visible yet so painfully out of reach.
Adding to the impact is Hans Zimmer’s score, which runs under practically every second of the film. It’s not a rousing orchestration designed to underline the majesty and heroism of the events, but an anxiety-inducing collection of shrieking strings and bowel-loosening bass that pulls tension out from within viewers. Ticking clock sounds are also woven into the pounding sound design, which is entirely appropriate. The entire film keeps you perched on the edge of your seat, desperate for escape or satisfaction that won’t arrive until the credits roll. More often than not, scenes plunge you into one even more horrific scenario after the next, leaving you desperate to gasp for air or experience a moment of relief that never comes. It’s as close to being plunged into the terror of warfare as is possible from the confines of a comfy theater seat with a mountain of popcorn. While ‘Dunkirk’ is endlessly thrilling and gripping, it’s also a film that viewers need to recover from afterwards. You don’t leave elated; you stumble out exhausted (in the best possible sense).
As to why Nolan chose this particular chapter of World War II to stage one of the most remarkably visceral, transporting and disturbing war combat movies ever made? Well, there’s something interesting about the fact that this is a story of defeat and escape rather than a triumphant battle. The enemies are barely seen on camera and the word Nazi is never uttered. This is a film about the triumph and heroism of surviving unimaginable adversity and tragedy with dignity and humanity. Often, that’s the hardest battle, yet least honored. Without overtly moralizing the subject matter, Nolan has made a movie that celebrates those who fight in war while presenting the experience as a horrifying endeavor from which no one emerges unscathed. It’s an indictment of the act and celebration of the participants without a word uttered to make that literal. You just feel it. You feel everything.
If ‘Dunkirk’ falls into the blockbuster genre, that’s because the experience is so visceral and cinematic that it communicates everything through pure spectacle. The message is merely more complex, true and tangible than when Nolan was learning these directorial techniques in movies about Batman and dream police. Simply put, ‘Dunkirk’ is a masterpiece, one of the best war movies ever made and if not Nolan’s finest hour, then at least the purest expression of his skill as a director without his voice as a writer overwhelming the cinema. You don’t watch ‘Dunkirk’. You experience it. See it in the biggest, loudest and most enveloping theater possible. ‘Dunkirk’ deserves it.