Christopher Nolan is one of those directors that in some way or another puts you in the exact same headspace and cognition as his main characters. I say “one of those directors” when I should really say “he is the only director,” sure there are plenty of fantastic directors that do a number of superhuman feats but Nolan is patient zero when it comes to innovative immersion.
Dunkirk retells the historically accurate evacuation of some 300,000 plus British and Allied troops from Dunkirk, France. During the chaotic evacuation, troops were met with a number of obstacles that included, high tide, harbor moles and of course Nazi’s coming in from the land, sea and air.
During the evacuation, all of Britain was called on to head out across the English Channel, leading to a harrowing rescue by the military and British citizens alike.
Brilliant sound design and a narrative that doesn’t hold your hand to give any exposition, goes a long way to make this feel like you are in the middle of the pandemonium. From the beginning, Nolan doesn’t bother addressing location (hopefully no need to do that or you are in the wrong movie) or doesn’t hand out character names on any platters. Instead, you are dropped into the panic of the evacuation totally blindsided.
The sound design of this thing alone is absolutely genius, specifically when it comes to the sound of the Spitfire planes, the sounds these planes create while maneuvering will rattle you. This is the first-time time that the torque of a plane has been almost tactile.
The film makes an interesting decision overlap its own timelines with scenes that we have previously been introduced to. Only difference is that you are shown the new scene from a fresh perspective of one of the other groups of soldiers. It feels like an unnecessary move, narratively. But it does add that undoubtable school of Nolan feel to it. The guy likes experimenting and ultimately that is why he is one of my all-time faves so very little complaints there despite it getting a little messy for a such a pristinely concise film.
Surprisingly none of the cast try to make themselves the center of attention. There is a simpatico between actors and the truly main character in the film are both the ideals of hope, bravery and of course Dunkirk. Tom Hardy goes through the film masked in pilot oxygen mask, Harry Styles is far from his over the top pop music fashionista self. Everyone is unified under the same story and through that they understand nobody is necessarily the “star” of the movie, but instead parts of an efficient cinematic machine.
Hans Zimmer terrifyingly brilliant score could easily be taken and replaced into a horror film and it would work. Grinding steel and the sounds of distorted ticking clocks work their way into the score to create palpable tension in tightly edited scenes of intersecting scenes of tension.
Tension is compounded further by the fact that you never see an enemies face. All the baddies are firing from planes, shooting torpedoes from far off subs, or being blurred out as part of the out of focus background. The Nazi German forces appear more as an entity than a corporeal beings face. In that way, Nolan uses the Roger Corman creature feature approach. What isn’t shown, is far more terrifying than what we can actually see.
This is easily the most British thing I have ever seen. From its attention to detail of toast, jam and tea to the older generations ideals of bravery. It is a snapshot into a time of immensely high standards on cowardice, pride and shame. In that way, the experience feels like stepping into a time machine to peer into a morale that is a thing we don’t get too may glimpses of anymore.
Still, as far as the superlative’s best and greatest go, I tend to lean a little more towards films that have re-watch ability. Dunkirk lands somewhere in the middle of my Nolan list, with Memento and The Prestige still at the top and The Dark Knight Rises somewhere at the bottom. Nolan is no slouch when it comes to anything he does, so even the bottom of that list makes for good films. Dunkirk lands somewhere in the middle of the list. It is master filmmaking and does things that will blow your mind in terms of scale and immersion, but I couldn’t see myself going back for a third or fourth re watch. I don’t think it is meant to be that sort of film, the story feels personal and like a rightfully proud story Nolan wanted to get off his chest. Some stories you only need to experience once or twice and this is one of em.
Go see Dunkirk on the biggest screen you can find. It’s a singular experience and one that will easily become the study of master film classes. Seriously, go see this movie, you guys!