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Dunkirk

Leave it to Christopher Nolan to take such a tired, threadbare subject as World War II and find a new angle on it. Where most WWII-era films are basically Allied propaganda, in which America and Britain win a righteous war against a world-conquering evil, this film makes the bold decision to focus at a time when the war had barely even started.

Dunkirk dramatizes the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. Nazi Germany had recently invaded Poland, the French and British forces had just responded with a declaration of war, and then Germany successfully took over France anyway. Even worse, the Allied forces had been driven clear across Europe until they were finally cornered at Dunkirk. Victory was not an option — they could only retreat. So it was that over 800 civilian boats assembled at the last minute to deliver over 330,000 soldiers across the English channel to safety.

Think about this, folks. When was the last time you saw a WWII film that took place before Pearl Harbor? A film that dared to show the Nazis at their full strength, delivering a crushing military defeat? Sure, we’ve had Casablanca and various Holocaust films in which the main objective is escape instead of victory, but those are personal stories by design. Such a story on the scale of a whole army is unlike any film of the period that I’ve ever heard of.

Oh, and at a runtime of only 106 minutes, this is Nolan’s shortest film by a wide margin. A nine-day evacuation effort depicted by a 100-minute movie? Just what were we in for here?

Well, to start with, this film compresses so much into so few minutes by playing out across three interweaving storylines: One by land, to show the perspective of the soldiers who are actually being evacuated; one by sea, to follow one of the civilian ships called in for the rescue; and one for the fighter pilots who provide air support for the other two. But here’s where things get really trippy: The land-based storyline plays out over a week, the sea-based storyline happens all in a day, and the air-based storyline unfolds within a single hour.

So it is that the film plays out in a non-linear fashion, as the different plots intersect at different points in their respective timelines. It’s really hard to describe how effective this is, mostly because I’d prefer to avoid spoilers and partly because I’m not the genius who madeĀ Memento. Suffice to say that the conceit plays with time in a way that leads to diabolically clever setups and payoffs. It creates wonderful dramatic irony and tension to see a wreck in one timeline, knowing that our characters are headed straight for it and we don’t know if they’ll make it out alive.

This brings me to something else that’s unique about this particular war movie: It actually has a lot more in common with a disaster movie. Consider that right up until the very end, we never see any actual Nazi soldiers — in this scenario, the Luftwaffe and U-boats are far more effective. As a direct result, the Nazi threat rains down from the sky or rises up from the ocean, destroying everything in its path. It’s unpredictable, terrifying, and unstoppable — in other words, a force of nature. Seriously, there are a few shots in which we see soldiers looking up toward the sky in reaction to some approaching sound, and you could seriously believe they were looking at a great goddamn hurricane headed their way.

Far more importantly, this comes back to the basic theme of survival. As Churchill put it in the legendary speech he gave after Dunkirk, “Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted.” There is honor in overcoming an impossible obstacle. There is strength in surviving through something so horrific that it killed off thousands more. The mere act of surviving can take incredible courage, sacrifice, fortitude, and faith against overpowering odds. Even in the face of a disheartening net loss, it’s the small victories — the survivors — that prove to be indispensable in rebuilding.

All of this is the same thematic stuff that disaster movies are built from. Hell, the very subgenre of “survival horror” has it right there in the name. But all of this takes on a new meaning in the context of World War II. Consider how history might have unfolded if the evacuation at Dunkirk was unsuccessful. Imagine if all those ships, all those planes, and all those thousands of soldiers from so many different European countries had never made it to Britain and never would have been able to fight against the Nazis again. Might the war have played out differently? We can only speculate. Yet it’s disturbingly to easy to imagine that a hundred or a thousand of those soldiers might have made the difference that kept Hitler out of London just long enough.

There’s really only one major nitpick with all of this, but it’s a doozy. For some, it might even be a dealbreaker. And what really sucks is that this one problem comes as a natural drawback of what makes this movie so great, such that it affects every single aspect of the picture from top to bottom.

Recall that the film only has 106 minutes to split between three completely storylines. All of which are moving at different speeds as they bounce from one to the other at different points in their respective timelines. Furthermore, consider that the characters we follow are only a handful among hundreds of thousands, all reduced to little more than animals as they desperately try to claw their way to tomorrow.

What I’m trying to say is that the character development here is shockingly thin. Even after sitting through the whole picture, I don’t even think I could tell you a single character’s name. I knew some of the characters through their actors and what function they had (Tom Hardy was the flying ace, Mark Rylance plays the old civilian sailor, Cillian Murphy plays the survivor with PTSD, Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy play a couple of senior officers who double as exposition machines, and so on), but that’s about it. We never get the chance to connect with any of them, and there’s barely a memorable thing about a single character.

But again, that’s kind of easy to expect when the chips are down and nothing matters except the primal urge to survive. Anyone would seem two-dimensional in the absence of any other motivation aside from “stay alive at all costs.” Additionally, if the characters are reduced to little more than the function they serve in advancing the plot, it could be because they’re soldiers and serving their purpose is really all they can do in this scenario.

That said, the characters all benefit greatly from how strong the cast is, but I think we all know who’s the real star here. Christopher Nolan is such a phenomenal director that he’s able to convey so much of the story through tight editing, perfectly composed shots, haunting music, the actors’ performances… basically, the story is conveyed through so many other means that the use of dialogue is relatively scarce. It takes a true master to make that work, and it pays dividends in a leaner runtime.

What’s even better is that in Nolan’s typical style, CGI was kept to a bare minimum. This makes a huge difference, especially when it comes to the breathtaking dogfight sequences. It’s incredible to watch those warplane fights with all their dizzying camera movements and think that it was all staged practically.

Speaking of which, the sound design is utterly phenomenal from start to finish. When the German planes come swooping in, it sounds like something so impossibly terrifying that I could totally understand having PTSD nightmares about it for decades. The Hans Zimmer score is another huge factor as well — it ticks along to suggest the unyielding rhythm of fate, it howls with a sound like the winds of hell, and on a few brief occasions, it even calls to mind the sweet sound of angels come to rescue our poor soldiers.

Dunkirk is absolutely thrilling. It’s inspirational, it’s immersive, it’s terrifying, it’s exciting, and the ingenious non-linear plot layout works beautifully as only Christopher Nolan could conceive. It’s unfortunate that the characters are pretty much entirely unmemorable, but it comes as a necessary cost of the film’s quick pace, the triptych structure, the pants-shitting terror of the current situation, and everything else that makes the film so overwhelmingly great.

This one absolutely comes recommended.

2 Comments

  1. Comment by Jack:

    Dude, where’s your War for the Planet of the Apes review

  2. Comment by Curiosity Inc.:

    I was out of town on the weekend of its release, so my time and my options were limited. I can’t say for sure when I’ll get to it, but I know I’ll get to it soon.

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