The latest masterpiece from critically-acclaimed writer, producer, director Christopher Nolan has hit the big screen with a bang. And I mean big screen, because Nolan has pushed the boundaries of cinema once again by shooting his war epic on 70mm film, making for a massive 18k resolution (potentially), and a 2:20:1 aspect ratio. With astounding cinematography, a Hans Zimmer score that will rumble through your bones, and a dedicated ensemble cast, Dunkirk is an experience not to be missed.
Set during the Second World War, Dunkirk is an honest and nuanced look at the famous Dunkirk evacuation of 1940, when Allied forces found themselves stranded on the beaches of Northern France and in need of rescue. There are no lasting friendships here, no love stories to be found, no dramatic story arcs of character development and self-discovery. Some critics have argued that there is no story at all, nothing to pinpoint a beginning, middle, or end. I agree, and I applaud Nolan and his team for daring to take a creative risk. This is not a popcorn movie, it is not a play-on-your-phone movie, it is an experience that requires your full and undivided attention. Should you give it that, you will be rewarded with a fractured and visceral three-part look into the minds of the men who were there.
The movie is told from three core narratives: the air, the sea, and the land. Each is given a distinct time frame to correspond with the pace of the action. The men on the beaches are given a week, the effort of the British public on the sea is shown over a day, and the roaring British Air Force (represented by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) wrap up their involvement in just one hour. The time frames and narrative overlap to create a sometimes confusing back-and-forth between events. What you may see from the point of view of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) on the beach is again shown from the perspective of Tom Hardy’s squealing Spitfire fifteen minutes later. This splintered take on the Dunkirk evacuation perfectly mimics what I imagine was the authentic experience. You, alongside everyone on that beach, must struggle through the murky proceedings to work out what the hell is going on.
Nolan makes a noticeable effort in this movie to bring the fear of war into focus. There are no overtly gory scenes – such as those found in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan – but rather the blood, guts, and gunshot wounds are given only the necessary amount of screen time. The obscene and gut-wrenching violence often associated with war (and rightly so) is only glimpsed at when our ensemble cast are forced face to face with it. When the German aerial bombers are swooping down like birds of prey to litter the beaches in explosives, we are not always met with instant death and destruction. Some people die, but most don’t. We focus on the most so that the story can continue moving forward. Had Nolan given screen time to every casualty, every torn off limb, I would still be in the cinema now. The lingering fear of these bombardments is enough.
The mental burden of war is plastered all over this movie. After weeks of fighting in the Battle of France, followed by a clutch for survival at Dunkirk, and finally, the high-risk evacuation across the Channel, young fighter Alex (Harry Styles) seems most concerned with what people back home will think of his return. He has already considered himself a failure and cannot bring himself to read the newspaper announcement of the evacuation (in actual fact, the military has returned to a hero’s welcome).
As many critics have pointed out, the characters have little to no back story in Dunkirk. They don’t have habits, traits, or stories of their life back home. There are no scenes of loved ones or family members awaiting their return. There are no forced sympathies. I can barely remember their names, but I sure remember their faces. I have felt their fear and their struggles, and that’s what’s important when telling a story like this. These men are moulds for every man who really fought on that beach. They are both everyone and no one. The hollowness of these characters should not be seen as a flaw, but as an opportunity for the viewer to absorb that role completely, and to fill in the gaps with the intricacies of their own lives.
If I had to find an area of this movie to criticise, it would be the handling of the French forces. The opening sequence of this movie reveals that the French are holding a perimeter in Dunkirk, waiting at blockades to face the powerful machine that is the German forces. This crucial role is given little screen time, and the few Frenchmen shown are accused at several points of infiltrating the British rescue operation. In reality, French (and Allied forces) made up roughly one-third of the total number evacuated. The French were heavily involved in Operation Dynamo, supplementing the British Navy with their own vessels and destroyers to assist in the evacuation. While it’s heart-warming and patriotic to see the Channel brimming with British civilian boats coming to the rescue, we shouldn’t forget the efforts and sacrifices of the French military, of which tens of thousands were killed or captured by enemy forces.
Sure, this film is British-centric. There are times in which Dunkirk fails to include its allied brothers, but for what it is, Nolan has made us proud to be British. He has beautifully stitched together the sound, cinematography, and editing of Dunkirk in a way that forms an immersive, fourth-dimensional experience. I watch this movie and I can taste the salt in the waves, I can feel the vibration in the air above me as enemy bombers swoop down, and I can smell the burning of the smoking warships. Many areas of this film are left to the imagination, but in a way that completely makes sense for the subject matter. This is war – there is simply no time for character backstory. All that matters is the here and now. This beach, these men, this evacuation.