As broad as war movies can be, they fall into familiarity and archetypes; some innovators along the way blaze new creative territory: Malick, Spielberg, Stone, etc. Those movies fall back onto male bonding, heroism, and the wanton brutality of war always looming large. With Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan fearlessly reshapes the contextual relationship with the way war is portrayed in cinema and, after 110 minutes of nerve-fraying suspense, it’s safe to say that Dunkirk is an achievement that indicates an evolution in Nolan's directorial career, providing a persuasively pioneering approach to lensing the agony and humanity of combat.
Dunkirk starts with a terrific level of urgency at the starting line, this anxiety parade (complimentary of course) taking place during the battle of Dunkirk where Allied troops were caught in a series in bombardments from German air-raids. The blitzkrieg drove the allied forces to the small French town. Escape was the only means for survival. But naval ships were not only too large for the shallow beaches of Dunkirk, they were also easy targets. However, civilian fishing/leisure boats were responsible for saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.
The introduction to the French town is an eerily quiet composition of atmospheric miasma while following anonymous troops. We don’t know who they are as we watch them read the German leaflets that are raining from the sky. These leaflets act as written exposition and foreshadowing that pole vaults us into an unrelenting air of tension. We then follow newcomer Fiona Whitehead, who escapes a shower of gunfire. He barrels toward the beach, however, there’s no respite as the odds of escape are narrowed when naval ships are fodder for German bombers and the locale is a tactical conundrum.
Nolan’s reputation for icily precise storytelling doesn’t disperse in exploring this notably inspiring chapter in World War II history. The evacuation, often referred to as “the Miracle of Dunkirk”, doesn’t clash with the directors cold remove, instead it encourages a diverse and expanded narrative. The curiosities surrounding Nolan’s reputation is impossible to overlook, while his sometimes convoluted and self-satisfied work feels smug, I’m always one to defend his level of ambition and ability to craft thought-provoking movies.
Interstellar felt self-consciously reflexive to the criticisms of his emotionless approach, and there is a similar reactionary impulse in Dunkirk. However, this response seems less knee-jerk and more fluid. In Dunkirk, his fascination with the transience of time appeals to covering three locations and their timelines. While Mark Rylance pilots his leisure boat with his younger son and his friend in tow to rescue marooned soldiers, two Spitfire pilots, played by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden, are tearing through the sky hammering bullets into German fighter planes, while the most central character Tom (Fionn Whitehead) allies with a near mute soldier named Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) to try to escape the beach. The incorporation of aerial warfare is refreshing since we don't see them too often in modern war films; the dogfight sequences are jarring and entirely convincing, and given Hardy’s proclivity for face gear, he’s right at home as a fighter pilot.
While Nolan is guilty in the past of over-expository characters and dialogue, the players in Dunkirk don’t move the action but become the action, and dialogue is kept to a bare minimum. The visuals are powerfully effective in their ability to channel the nonlinear narrative; the notion of discussion seems superfluous.
The use of negative space: the air, sea, and sky lend a swelling scope to the films subtly dwarfing sense of spectacle. The hopelessness of war is magnified by distant cutaways to lines of soldiers, ships protruding from the shifting tides, and the vastness of the ocean and shoreline from the rear view of the Spitfire planes. Dunkirk's omniscient point of view is naturally hypnotic. Lee Smith, who’s edited Nolan's last six films, blends the expansive with the more tightly compacted and intimate shots of characters and interiors. It’s evocative of historical imagery, perhaps by coincidence, and the fluidity of their construction is masterly.
In realizing the true story of human triumph amid the chaos of war, Dunkirk resolutely eschews convention. It veers on the defensive but achieves in making the visceral elliptical, while emphasizing the power of camaraderie. Here, Nolan’s clinical hand yields a war story replete with explosions and violence, yet there isn’t more than a few drops of blood, and the German combatants are largely unseen. Stagey heroism and speechifying protagonists don’t take center stage. And, in realizing what's most significant, while also being ambitious, the film clocks in at a lean 107 minutes.
Dunkirk hits the ground running, an unexpectedly modernized form of cinematic expression that combines visual bravura with suspenseful brevity, while being relentlessly spellbinding.