Nolan’s Dunkirk is a Skillful Tale of Sacrifice and Survival

Writer/director Christopher Nolan returns with perhaps his most ambitious film yet, Dunkirk, a multi-perspective story set during the pivotal World War II Battle of Dunkirk. It’s no secret that a Christopher Nolan movie is an event, after all we’re talking about a guy that directed what many believe to be the best superhero movie of all timeThe Dark Knight in 2008. After that, he somehow managed to spin Eisteinian physics into box office gold with 2014’s Interstellar.

This time around, Nolan divides the timeline up into three chunks, one taking place on the land during the course of a week, another on a boat in one day and the third in the air, which is condensed into one hour. The three threads gradually intertwine, with a little going back and forth through time, until they all finally converge in the film’s climax.  It’s a familiar Nolan trope, as exploring the relative nature of time was also a theme of Interstellar as well as in his breakthrough feature of Memento. But while in those movies the device was more of an intellectual exercise, in Dunkirk his use of overlapping continuity is for more of a visceral effect. In fact, Dunkirk is his most emotionally engaging and moving film yet. Which should be of no surprise as its also his first film based on real events, which gives the plot an extra level of impact. Without giving too much away, the depicted circumstances are remarkable to the point of disbelief, which makes the movie that much more incredible.

Speaking of which, if you aren’t familiar with World War II history, doing a little digging into the background of Dunkirk before you go wouldn’t hurt. I mention that because of how little exposition and even any dialogue whatsoever is in this film. Beyond a few terse lines in the title card, much of the broad strokes of the incident are left to brief snatches of speaking or a quickly glanced piece of Nazi propaganda dropped from a plane. This isn’t a movie that is going to tell you what is happening, much to its credit, it makes a point of showing you through imagery alone. And striking imagery it is, from the clear blue skies of spiraling dog fights to burning oil slicks on the sea, the photography brings to mind the classic Life pages from previous decades. This evocation is in no small part due to Nolan’s choice to shoot on 70 mm film, rather than digital. I was lucky enough to see the move in glorious 70 mm celluloid projection, a rarity these days, and it went a long way to transporting me completely back to the spring of 1940 and the sunny beaches of France. If you have the chance to see this movie on one of the screens that is showing it on 70 mm film, I highly recommend you make an effort to see it in this format.

Another factor in the movie’s masterful recreation of the look and feel of mid-20th Century locations is the use of large numbers of extras and real stunt work rather than the typical CGI of today’s movies. Instead of weightless cartoons, the action sequences all look and feel like the real events. I’m sure some CGI was used, but never did I think that it looked like it. The use of practical effects hammers home once again that this all really happened, as unlikely as it seems in our own vastly transformed world. Unexpectedly, the most modern aspect of the production is the score by Hans Zimmer, which relies on dissonance and tension and eschews standard orchestral arrangements. The epic swells that arrive late in the movie mimic the ever present waves of the sea and provide an uplifting complement to the plot’s resolution.

The acting is understated throughout, mainly due to the lack of talking, but also because the people are so overshadowed by the massive scope of the events that overtake them. The sea timeline gives us the most opportunity to get to know the characters, as it not only is a physical journey, but one in which a young man learns a great deal about war and its consequences. Tom Glynn-Carney shines in this role and it amazingly is his first movie. Elsewhere, Tom Hardy’s familiar face is mostly obscured by a flight helmet and pop star Harry Styles turns in a surprisingly solid performance as a private trying to get off the beach. The acting, attention to period detail, pacing and Nolan’s complete command of the technical elements of the film all combine into what can only be described as a magnum opus. The only thing that could deter it from sweeping the Oscars next year is its atypical summer release, looking quite out of place amid the superhero and sequel blockbusters.

Ultimately Nolan’s Dunkirk is a tale about sacrifice, and it’s hard not to wonder if the people of today would make the same choices if given a similar scenario. But I appreciated that much of this theme was implicit, there were no present day bookends to clumsily frame the story, no “earn this” moment a la Saving Private Ryan. In fact, if anything, the film doesn’t even celebrate these events. At the end an onlooker says to our heroes, “You survived, that’s enough.” It’s hard to argue with that message, when confronted with an onslaught of darkness and victory seems improbable if not impossible, survival itself is a noble cause.

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