Dir. Christopher Nolan
PG13 / 1h 46m / Action, Drama, History
– Well done, lads. Well done.
– All we did was survive.
– That’s enough.
I won’t beat around the bush. War films are completely out of genre for me. I don’t like them and I don’t want to subject myself to the feelings that come with each one. The death. The hopelessness. The use of men as means. It wasn’t until Hacksaw Ridge (2016) that good ole Mel opened my eyes to a new way of approaching these emotional powerhouses, and honestly, the second reason why I was stoked to see Dunkirk.
Christopher Nolan was the first.
I usually input a bit of plot in this paragraph, something I’ve been struggling with myself over for a few hours now, because I am not a history buff, or even slightly interested in becoming one, and I don’t want to do ANY injustice to this film or the people that will be reading this review – so here is the best I can give. Dunkirk follows three perspectives during one the most pivotal WWII military disasters. 400,000 men are herded to a beach, are being picked off by planes, and many boats in attempt to save them are ruined. Because that is so, in a last ditch effort, the British Navy activates the civilian boats in an effort to evacuate at least 30,000 of the men. The story follows three soldiers, a British pilot, and a civilian captain as they experience war in their own perspectives.
Christopher Nolan is the mind behind Interstellar (2014) and he partnered with the same cinematographer, Hoyt Van Hoytema, and again with Hans Zimmer, so immediately we know that Dunkirk is going to be a sensory experience, but I underestimated just how extreme that experience would be.
I’m talking heart racing, scared for your life, terrifying wartime, yall. From a theater seat in Alabama.
As stated above, we follow three perspectives. At some point in time they all cross each other, giving the story telling here an immediate boost in value – one action here, affects another action down the road. One decision here, is a life saved there. They all intertwine and come together for a split second that is so very satisfying.
The cinematography is vast, and beautiful, and it captures the severity of the location beyond expectation. For miles, there is water or there is sand. Or there are people, tiny against nature. Tiny against war. Floating, dead in the water. There are ships, then there are sinking ships, then there is nothing. There are planes. Then they are gone. The volatile atmosphere, the promise that nothing is permanent, is so accurately portrayed.
There is minimal dialogue in these 90 minutes, and it is such smart cinema on Nolan’s part. Without words, we revert to reading body language. We are forced into the details. We see conversations with eyes, we see fear in a way that we all know too well. We see soldiers, but we understand their thinking. Or at least, we are given the opportunity to fill in the blanks with our own thinking, delving us even further into the experience. And really, this film would have trouble standing out among the array of war films the last century has given us without this primal shift.
It is nothing short of amazing, to sit here 70 years later, and be able to, so easily, place yourself into the past.
Wartime, as a whole, is difficult for me to fully comprehend. My generation may always know of it by only what we see on film. I don’t understand what it feels like to fight for, or want to fight for, your country. I don’t understand what it means to leave everything you know and fight for people that will never know your name. I don’t understand the killing of others, or sides, or how people can block out the taking of life because they were born on a the wrong side. I hope I never have to understand those things. But I am coming to understand the implications of these ideals and how they fuel us a species. While it makes for great cinema, it’s important to remember that people have given their lives for this story.
This film will not give you a victory, no. It will show you war on three different fronts, and it will show you the meaning of social responsibility. It is dark. It’s also bleak. At times it makes you feel hopeless and angry, frustrated. Dunkirk is an all out sensory experience that will submerse you, and believe me, you’ll still be there hours after you’ve left your seat.