Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk may be the director’s most single-minded film. All the sensory effects of a cinematic experience, visual and auditory, are marshaled to reproduce the barely endurable tension and fear of the Allied soldiers stranded by enemy attack at the isolated beaches of Dunkirk in 1940 during WWII. In other words, rather than the cinematic spectacle being driven by an emotional story, the amazing spectacle here becomes the story. The movie’s primary purpose is to put the audience right into the middle of the escalating danger that the over 300,000 British, French, and Dutch troops faced with growing dread and hopelessness of rescue until the miraculous evacuation took place. In achieving that purpose to gruelingly moving effect, it mightily succeeds.
Thus, while the movie is available in a variety of different formats including 70 mm, 35 mm, or digital projection in IMAX or non-IMAX, this movie must be seen in 70mm IMAX for maximum impact (read here for a better explanation of different formats). All sorts of credit and awards recognition must go to the cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema (also responsible for shooting Interstellar and 2008’s atmospheric vampire film, Let the Right One In). I cannot fathom the lengths Nolan and Hoytema must have gone through to install those lugging IMAX cameras at the back of plane wings and above the seas to capture those shots realistically plowing through the clouds in the air or swooping through the seas (those prone to motion or air sickness should be forewarned). It is an astonishing accomplishment that furthers Nolan’s consistent argument that 2D can be more immersive than 3D and that 70 mm film stock is still a valuable resource in the age of digital projection. In addition, Nolan, who avoids CGI when he can, opted for greater physical reality by using real naval destroyers for the sea battles and practical effects of cardboard cutouts of soldiers on the beach for distant background shots.
All of this is not to suggest that the movie is necessarily lacking in story, as writer/director Nolan employs his trademark nonlinear storytelling technique to tell three disparate accounts of the Dunkirk evacuation. The first, which stars Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, and Harry Styles as Allied soldiers, takes place on the beach in the span of one week (chaptered “The Mole”, which is actually referring to the small isolated beach harbor). The second (chaptered “The Sea”) takes place in the span of one day and features Mark Rylance as a civilian boat captain with his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a local boy (Barry Keoghan), setting out from home on his boat to rescue soldiers stranded in Dunkirk. Finally, the third (“The Air”) happens in the span of one hour in an aerial battle of British RAF pilots headlined by Tom Hardy against German pilots.
In telling the three accounts that finally intersect near the climax, there are no detailed backstories of individual characters, as the movie, without much dialogue, is entirely concerned with capturing the hellish anxiety of war in the moment. The relative experiences of anxiety would be different, however, between the fear of potential air strikes and torpedoes on the ground, which would be like a prolonged and unbearable crawl, and the fear of drowning or heights being more sudden and instantaneous. Nolan’s regular editor, Lee Smith, conveys that rather elegantly in the movie’s crosscutting between the different passages of time. The structure also allows for small, significant character turns and revelations, whether they be heroism, trauma, or cowardice.
The movie is not geared to be an actors’ showcase but it is nonetheless tricky for the performers to behave convincingly in the moment to make us care for their predicament. The veteran Oscar®-winning British actor, Mark Rylance is a crucial standout as the boat captain in “The Sea”, symbolically expressing the can-do spirit responding to the desperate military call from Dunkirk for civilians to rescue them. Playing opposite him in a fierce battle of determination is Cillian Murphy, a shell-shocked soldier that Rylance rescues from another near-sinking boat. As the ranking commander on the beach, Kenneth Brannagh also provides great facial reaction shots that Nolan can hold on to underline the mounting weight of enemy oppression in the shores. Hardy may be building a running joke in playing roles that require him to wear a mask over his face all the time (after The Dark Knight Rises and Mad Max: Fury Road), but is as reliable as always, while Whitehead, Bonnard, and Styles provide fitting empathy as the desperate soldiers.
A special mention must also go to Nolan’s regular composer, Hans Zimmer, who comes up with yet another unique musical score. Reportedly, Zimmer made recordings of the tick-tock sound of Nolan’s pocket watch as the background for his score. The music builds on that sound with increasing, high-pitched crescendo sounds to emphasize the feel of a countdown ticking in the desperation of survival.
In its skillful joining of sheer spectacle and story, the movie that I was most reminded of was Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, which is the only movie that I felt was actually improved by seeing it on 3D. Both movies fully exploit and immerse us into all the inherent drama of survival in the face of seemingly inevitable doom and, though Nolan is more of a traditionalist in technique, both films try to push the envelope of visual technologies to achieve the immersive effect. Much like Gravity clocked in at just 91 minutes, I am also particularly happy that Nolan, after the slight bombast of Interstellar (which I still liked for its vision but found too simplistic in its ideas), made his second shortest movie to date at 106 minutes. The movie has a singular purpose and achieves it in a most efficiently brilliant way.
USA/UK//France/Netherlands. 2017. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Harry Styles, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Barry Keoghan. Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language.