Dunkirk marks the return of Christopher Nolan, the celebrated cerebral and psychological auteur—who may also be the greatest director of his generation. This latest installation finds Nolan grappling with one of the most improbable and audacious evacuations in military history. So decidedly inane, its saving grace was the use of a civil navy made up of dinghies—which caused it to be hailed as victory rather than the blundering defeat that it was.
For a film whose central presentation is the entrapment of men on a beach, very little of the action occurs there. Mostly, Nolan is interested in tight quarters. There are no settings where soldiers are greeted by a wide expanse, even the beach scenes are claustrophobic. Instead, every shot is within the hull of a boat, the cockpit of a spitfire, or the packed mole that is so teeming with soldiers awaiting safe passage that from above German planes were probably barely able to spot the difference between mole and man as they ravaged them with bullets.
These tight shots are what give Dunkirk its frenetic pace, especially during the dog fights between Farrier’s (Tom Hardy) spitfire and the German fighters. When viewers are put inside the cockpit, as these planes soar through the air and the tick-tock of a clock clicks in the background, the audience is reminded that these men are alone. Any time an enclosed space is depicted, the natural human reaction is for the heart to beat a bit quicker. The tight shots that Nolan uses brings out the isolation of the men at Dunkirk. These shots, coupled with the use of large-format film, a technique that is unusual in today’s digital age—allows for greater detail. Suddenly, even the large scale shots become more intimate—and the scattered men on the beach truly do appear to be separated from each other and the rest of the world.
This isolation is deepened by Nolan steering from using Churchill. Most war films have some moment where the viewer sees the high command, the generals and politicians in charge of the war. It must have been incredibly tempting for Nolan not to play the Churchill card. Rather than use it, here, barring Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), there are no high ranking officers. Instead, the film focuses on three soldiers, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles), as they move from boat-to-boat in a desperate attempt to leave the beach. By focusing on three ordinary men, the film is able to balance the large scale escape with the intimacy of personalizing the soldiers.
What is also astounding about Dunkirk is how few lines are actually uttered. Commander Bolton might as well be Shakespeare, considering he had 20 lines in total (And yea, that was a Branagh-Shakespeare joke I tried to make). Tom Hardy has about 10 lines, yet he’s the highlight of the film as the ace pilot, who’s willing to risk precious fuel as he nicks off each German plane, one-by-one.
In the competition for the most lines in the film, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) comes out on top. Acting as one of the main captains of a dinghy, he has an amazing knowledge of fighter planes. He gives the film much of its compassion, and a civilian perspective. In a war where everyone has to survive for themselves, Mr. Dawson is continually willing to push the limits if it will save a soldier. His interactions with one of the soldiers (Cillian Murphy) that he saves is one such example. Though the soldier is shell shocked and violent, Mr. Dawson is well-aware of the internal battle happening within him, and grants him latitude (Even when he’s undeserving).
Nolan’s greatest challenge in the film is how to make a rescue attempt, where most of the soldiers are standing around, have some type of frenetic rhythm. He creates rhythm by being loose with narrative sequencing. There are three episodes in the film, each occurring at different moments in the narrative: the mole, the air fights, and the civil navy approaching. At times, these narratives will strand together, happening at once. Toward the conclusion of the film, all three threads entangle together to create the most harrowing portion of the film: the evacuation itself.
The best scenes are the ones with the least dialogue, such as the evacuation scene or the opening sequence. In the opening sequence, six soldiers walk down a European street. The buildings adorning the street provide perfect framing, as they tower over the soldiers making it appear as if they are trapped by their surroundings. As they walk, leaflets fall from the sky telling them they are surrounded. While they scour the town for water and cigarettes, shots begin to ring out. The soldiers are quickly gunned down one-by-one, with Tommy as the lone survivor. In this sequence, the audience doesn’t see the enemy. In fact, the audience never sees the enemy. Instead, the focus is put exclusively on the British soldiers throughout the film. Nolan is incredibly minimalist in his use of dialog. He realizes that anyone with any ounce of history will know that the Germans were the enemy. So, why waste precious dialog when it’s already obvious?
Dunkirk might be Nolan’s greatest and most intimate film, and it’s an early and clear contender to be nominated for Best Picture. It will most certainly receive nominations for Cinematography—as it will be one of the best shot films of this year—and Sound Mixing and Editing. In the end, the sound in Dunkirk is the true star of the film, as spitfires rage across the screen and the tick-tock of the clock incessantly chimes in the background. Nolan is certainly at the top of his game as he balances the grand scale of war with the intimacy of the men fighting it. Dunkirk, so far, is the best film of the year and a modern war masterpiece…
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Photo credit: Indie Wire