Christopher Nolan is a brilliant director. OK, that’s not exactly a newsflash. From Inception to the Dark Knight to Interstellar, Nolan has the ability to weave a tale on screen like few other directors today.
And now we have Dunkirk. To be honest, if Nolan’s name wasn’t attached to it, I’m not sure I would have been as interested to go see it. The trailer doesn’t reveal much in the way of spoilers (a good thing!), so the best I came away from it with was that it was a generic WW2 movie. Now I admit that I knew nothing about the Dunkirk evacuation before going to the movie, so I went in about as fresh as you can get. And what a ride it was!
7 minutes or so into the movie, Nolan flashes 3 locations on the screen. What’s important about these is that each is attached to a time. 1 Week, 1 Day, 1 Hour. At the start of the movie, your not quite sure as to the relevance of these times.
However as we saw with Interstellar and Inception, Nolan loves to play with time as a constant. And in Dunkirk, he masterfully uses it to weave three separate tales together that link up during the climax.
But the audience doesn’t know that from the beginning. The lines between each theater of war (air, land, and sea) blur a bit from here to there. But the “ah ha” moment really hit home for me once the ship got torpedoed. It was clearly night on the ship when it started sinking, however shots kept cutting back to the dogfight in the air while the sun was still up. As the English Channel isn’t that big where it could be two times of the day at once, I knew something was up.
And then you started seeing shots from different angles. When the pilot had to ditch his aircraft in the middle of the channel, we saw him wave from the cockpit. The other pilot (played by Tom Hardy), is meant to think he’s OK based on that. However later, when we get that same event from the sea, we learn that the pilot was actually trapped in the cockpit, struggling for life. This was a powerful scene that goes a long way to show how perspective can shape your reality.
However what was most interesting about Dunkirk was the anonymity of it all. We don’t have any war heroes to latch on to. Hell, we don’t even know the names of most of the characters we are following around. And I think that’s what Nolan is trying to give us. The raw, unforgiving nature of war. You are a cog in the wheel. There are hundreds of thousands just like you, all trying to do the same thing. Survive.
And that’s really what Dunkirk is. A tale of survival. It’s not a war movie. It’s a disaster movie. The battle was lost, the “heroes” routed. Interestingly, we never actually see “the enemy”. No German ever makes it on camera and they are barely even referenced to as Germans. Sure, it’s World War 2, we all know who the bad guys are. However the allies in the movie constantly refers to them as “the enemy”, which adds to the mystique of them. The unseen monsters firing bullets and dropping bombs.
Dunkirk will have you on the edge of your seat for its entire run time and wastes no time getting you into the action. While Interstellar was heavy with dialogue and exposition, Dunkirk is the opposite. People only speak when necessary and it’s usually powerful when they do.
Throughout its run, Dunkirk has you running through a range of emotions: Fear, isolation, hope, relief, worry, you name it. And speaking of fears, if you have one, it will probably manifest itself here. Loneliness, death, place crashes, drowning, etc…
I enjoyed Dunkirk much more than I expected and it’s definitely a movie that I can’t wait to watch again. As with any Nolan movie, it’s one where a second or third viewing is going to allow you to pick up on things you missed before. Such as the “shivering soldier” appearing calm and orderly on a boat in scenes after he’s been rescued by the father and two boys (another hint that the timeline was out of whack).
If you are on the fence about it, go see Dunkirk in the theater (IMAX 70mm if that’s an option in your area). The big screen and the loud sound make for an amazing moving going experience. While it’s not your usual, lighter summer faire, it absolutely worth seeing.