(Note: Given all the talk of format with this film, I should note that I could not actually get to a 70mm IMAX screening as the closest one was 45 minutes away. But I did manage to get into a regular IMAX screening. So take from that what you will.)
In an age of pre-existing intellectual properties dominating cineplexes, it is comforting to know that there are still directors who can create summer tentpole buzz simply by having their name being attached to the project. And over the years Christopher Nolan has definitely earned his reputation as a box-office draw. From Memento to Interstellar, Nolan has made a career out of creating smart, ambitious, but popular fare. And so far, he has also not had a single misfire in his career (Interstellar at 71% on Rotten Tomatoes is his low-water mark, and is still higher than the average of most directors).
With Dunkirk, Nolan once again stretches himself by moving into a genre he’s never touched before (war), with a structure he’s never done before (or has been done ever), and shot almost exclusively on IMAX or 65mm which again has never been done before. And it is with great pleasure to say he succeeds.
At one level this is the least confusing Nolan movie that he has ever made. The plot is refreshingly simple. The movie begins with a scrawl telling us that French and British troops in World War 2 were on the retreat until they were surrounded in the coastal town of Dunkirk desperately waiting to be rescued. And that is all the story that you need to know. This is a rescue mission, as simple as that. The opening scene sets the stage as we narrow in on Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) as he walks with his troop through an abandoned but serene looking Dunkirk. Apart from the German pamphlets raining from the sky, nothing about this scene hints that these boys, and boys they are, currently occupy a warzone. And then this almost tranquil scene is shattered by an earsplitting gunshot that jolts you out of your seat. And from then on every quiet moment no longer feels like a peaceful respite but fills you with dread. From that moment on, we are drawn into the hell that was Dunkirk.
For a war movie, it is surprising how little actual fighting there is. And this is because Nolan isn’t primarily concerned with the brutality of war – but he is more interested in exploring dread. The enemy is wisely left unseen but there is no doubting that they are omnipresent whether it is the army in the woods, the U-boats stalking the waters, or the fighter jets terrorizing the beach. With every ear-shattering gunshot, with every sunk rescue boat, and with every bomb dropped on the beach the feeling of hopelessness grows and the believability in rescue dims. The beach is vast but sparse, abandoned, and desolate. The groups of soldiers are huddled in minuscule-looking masses, or crowded like fish in a barrel. Soldiers flinch at every gunshot or cower in terror at the mere hint of the drone of an aircraft. The picture is so bleak that in normal circumstances any hope of a happy ending for these 300,000 or so trapped troops would be seen as a cheap, if miraculous, cop-out. The fact that this is exactly what the annals of history tell us happens makes it all the more unbelievable.
Part of the strength of this movie is its intimacy. Though the movie takes place on three levels (the beach, the rescue boats, and the air support), Nolan wisely does not overstuff each level with a huge cast of characters. On the beach we simply focus on Tommy and his two eventual companions, impossibly young and desperate for escape. The sea rescue narrows in on a father (Mark Rylance), his son, and his young crew member taking his personal family boat into the heart of war. And finally in the air we follow the fighter wing of Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden). These people become our only windows into Dunkirk. There is no boardroom of generals discussing what is happening. No appearance by Churchill and no grandiose speech to “bring our boys home”. Instead all we are given is a first hand-level glimpse into the horrors of the rescue effort.
It is perhaps the least surprising thing that Christopher Nolan, the man who made his calling card unconventional narrative structures, would once again present straightforward material in a uniquely Nolan-esque way. In Dunkirk the campaign of land, sea, and air are each told in different time frames with the land evacuation taking place over a week, the sea rescue over a day, and the air backup taking place over an hour. But rather than being a gimmicky distraction, this framework helps to advance the disorienting intimacy of the movie. This allows each narrative to begin at the exact same moment of urgency and intensity and to ebb and flow accordingly. It also saves us the need for expositionary backstory for our principal characters – we know all we need to know about them simply by their actions.
Of course this unique storytelling approach would fall apart if it also wasn’t executed to perfection and fortunately this is where the production crew excels from the cinematography, to the editing, to the soundscape, to the score. If each of these departments do not get a Oscar nomination next year, I am going to be seriously peeved.
Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema previously impressed with his excellent work on Interstellar (the best part of the movie) but here he proves perfectly adept at working with something a lot less fantastical. As you can see in the screenshot below, he does a fantastic job balancing both the gargantuan scale of the shoot while never losing focus on the intimate nature of this story.
Perhaps more impressive is the editing work of Lee Smith. Again an unconventional structure demands excellent editing and Smith exceeds expectations. It was startling that at no point in this movie was I confused by what was going on. Smith does a good job not just setting up individual scenes so that they it is easy for us to tell where everything is in relation to space, but he also utilizes the narrative structure to his advantage where the faster timelines anticipate scenes that will happen in the slower timelines, allowing you to prepare for whats next.
Finally, let me make a couple of comments about the soundscape and score. I’ve read some (minor) criticism about how abrasive and heart-poundingly loud the soundscape is. As I mentioned earlier, I jumped at the first gunshot because of what a loud thunderclap it was. And every gunshot, explosion, engine drone, and crash after that similarly reverberates off the walls. While it is jarring and discomfiting, I think that this is a big part of why the movie works. The soundscape forces us to be as exposed as the soldiers are, making the danger imminent, leaving us no place to hide. In fact I think it is the soundscape in particular that allows the movie to be as (surprisingly) bloodless as it is without losing its realism. And with the score, Hans Zimmer manages to outdo himself again. The score is anachronistically modern, but effective in accentuating the tension and connecting the three storylines together. And he does it using surprising sound effects and with a certain ticking sound he manages to finally update the overused trumpet BWAHS of Inception (and I look forward to every movie trailer for the next decade ripping it off).
This movie is a taut and tense thriller that never loses focus on the personal nature of this story. It portrays extraordinary heroism in very intimate and ordinary ways. It is a subtle subversion to war movies in general, but a great tribute to the rescued and the rescuers. Christopher Nolan has done justice to what is perhaps the most extraordinary and miraculous story in a brutal and horrific war. While I am not such a snob to say that you have to see this in 70mm IMAX – I might make the recommendation that it would be to your benefit to at least see it in as big a screen as you can find within a reasonable driving distance. And I do realize that for a certain demographic, I could’ve just saved myself a thousand words or so and just told you that the movie is really good and Harry Styles is in it and surprisingly good! Really what more can you ask for in a summer movie?