It is films like this that remind me I have no idea how to make a movie. I think I would be able to conceive of a mood and determine story elements that might be compelling, but to really bring together the distinct elements of a film and create an impactful final product? I would have no chance. And that is saying nothing of doing it on the scale that Dunkirk takes place on. To say it is a technical marvel would be an understatement. It is a masterclass on using the right images and sounds to tell your story. From its native IMAX format (seriously, you need to see this in IMAX) to the potent Hans Zimmer score, it all works together to generate the crispest experience Christopher Nolan has created in his already storied career.
Dunkirk takes place in three interlaced parts--i. The Mole, which is set on the shores of Dunkirk, France and follows British and French troops on the ground, ii. The Sea, which follows civilians being called to aid in the evacuation effort on their private vessels and iii. The Air, which follows a British pilot evading the Luftwaffe (the German aerial military branch). While each of these storylines ends in roughly the same place, Nolan plays with the timeline in such a way that one story is told over the course of one hour, another over the course of a day, and one is told over the course of a week. The effect is a deeply satisfying climax following an hour and a half of nearly unrelenting tension.
When telling a story based on historical events, no matter how little known, the magic of your story cannot be in how the events turn out. When an audience knows the broad strokes of your plot, you have to find another way to wow, and to Nolan's credit, he does just that. The actual events here almost feel like an afterthought when compared to the feelings the film is trying to convey. The basic outline is that British forces are trapped on a beach during WWII and civilian ships must come rescue them to avoid catastrophic loss of life. But beyond that, Nolan is trying to create a sense of war that goes far beyond the Battle of Dunkirk.
This is a textural experience. Whether it is the feeling of staying underwater to avoid flaming gasoline at the surface, or quickly creating a plan as the last bit of breathable air leaves your sinking ship, Nolan is interested in putting the audience in the middle of this experience that is almost universally foreign. There are no stilted monologues on the costs of war; instead, there are pained faces as these young men face what human beings are not meant to face, their own mortality.
Throughout Christopher Nolan's career, it has been obvious that he knows what he is doing. But in Dunkirk, he reaches a new level of both restraint and exhibitionism. Restraint in that the film's 106 minute runtime feels almost spare compared to the usual WWII epics. Exhibitionism in that he is packing these frames with every bit of technology and craftsmanship he can muster in an effort to magnify his story. The end result is larger than life war sequences as intense as any I've ever seen. The scale and scope are truly remarkable and the soundscape almost functions like that of a horror movie--creating the jarring effect real gunshots almost certainly would.
If there is a negative word to say about the film, it is that some may find a certain detachment from its characters. None really have detailed backstories and we only learn bits and pieces about a select few. But to focus on character misses what Nolan is trying to do. In much the same way war cuts across people in indiscriminate fashion and can often have effects that ripple through generations, Dunkirk weaves these characters together in almost haphazard fashion. The effect is one that leaves you with just enough detail about just enough people that you are free to consider the broader implications that come with when they do or don't return home. It does not hold your hand or attempt to manipulate your emotions. It is just a visceral look at the gravity of war told by one of the most able filmmakers at the peak of his powers. The message is clear if you listen, you couldn't make a film like this either.
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