Alttyrt’s review published on Letterboxd:
WWII films week (07/07-12/07) - FILM #1
(WATCHED PREVIOUSLY AS IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT IN FEB 2018)
Tommy: [last dialogue, quoting Winston Churchill] We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. and even if this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
Nolan's latest film currently (that is IF Tenet ever gets pushed back to 2021 or beyond* [see footnote below]) is probably one of the simplest the cinematic auteur ever gets since his indie roots. Here, the characters are stripped down to basic human beings with basic motivation in a situation they find themselves in due to the effects of wartime. Nolan skillfully divided these characters to a triptych of air, land, and sea, using his trademark motif of time displacement to separate these individual events each of them faced over a specific duration. Most of all, the plot isn't that inherently complex, to begin with, because the film is about people fighting to survive in enemy territory and a group of their fellow country coming to not only rescue them but to defend them from the encroaching enemy. You just need to have a good eye to spot details on the second viewing in these little intersections between the triptych...
As mentioned, there are no clear defining character arcs for these people in Dunkirk. For Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), all he wants to do is to get out of France alive before the encroaching enemy either take him out like what they have done to his squadmates at the opening minutes or hold him prisoner. For Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and the latter's friend, George (Barry Keoghan), they had a call to save as many lives as possible from torpedoed vessels and downed fighters before the Navy can requisition their private boat for their own means. And for Farrier (Tom Hardy), he had a mission to stop enemy aircraft from taking out more defenseless soldiers, sacrificing his personal safety to buy these people more time. All of these characters do not have any semblance of development or arcs to define them as heroes or antiheroes in this situation. It is all about their battle to survive or to protect others from meeting a certain fate at the hands of the enemy. They are simply just simple humans united in this situation, their fates intersected in a specific moment in time.
Christopher Nolan likes to use time displacement to tell non-linear narratives in most of his films. Here, using the triptych of air, sea, and land, he splits these 3 subplots into their corresponding duration of an hour, a day, and a week, to show how the situation evolved for these different perspectives and how they intertwined in that specific juncture. An interesting part about Dunkirk's anachronistic order after rewatching it is that I start to realize the details and how they seemingly co-relate or contradict from one perspective to another. For instance, in a crucial scene where Collins (Jack Lowden) being forced to ditch after getting shot down by a Luftwaffe fighter, from Farrier's perspective, we assumed he will be in safe hands after seeing Dawson's ship rolling to his rescue. However, much later on in the film, we switch to Dawson's own perspective and see that Collins is actually struggling to escape from his sinking fighter and close to drowning if they delayed reaching his crash site. There are other such moments like that in this film which has these intersections to show the changes in a character's situation over time or how they differ from one perspective to another. Granted, a few of them have a few continuity issues (notably some change in weather conditions in between scenes), but the overall narrative presentation is while not a major headscratcher as Nolan's other films, it is still as interesting to see the difference between characters' perspective and how it linked in those intersections.
And for a film that is PG-13 unlike many other war films, Nolan managed to bend the rules to make the film much more horrifying to watch while still making it more mainstream. While you do not see realistic bullet wounds or blood exploding out of the enemy when they are shot or bombed to bits, the film is still reasonably graphic, depicting that moment with brutal honesty. At the last set piece of the film in which survivors of a sinking minesweeper scramble to get out of a growing oil spill from the vessel, a bomber shot down by Farrier suddenly crashed and exploded on the oil patch, setting ablaze the oil. The camera then briefly follows one of the survivors as he submerged just before the fire spread to him, but he could not swim past the flames and had to resubmerge for air. He instantly got burnt to a crisp, the camera cutting away as it happens. Nolan skillfully conveys the horror at the moment in scenes like this, showing bluntly the unpredictability of war and just how anyone can die brutally. While still keeping the film to be commercially appealing, Nolan wants to ramp up the stakes of these characters by conveying that war is a nightmare for those struggling to survive. Some more, the enemy is depicted as a force of death, unseen by the audience and the characters, which is unique for a war film in practice. It does not even help that Hans Zimmer's score is haunting on its own, using a ticking clock motif to enhance the stakes depicted in the situation. Dunkirk is just the most brutal Nolan can ever get before the film can be reclassified as R-rated entertainment.
As usual, Nolan chooses to forgo CGI to make the overall film more natural as possible. All the ships, small boats, aircraft are either modified from existing assets to accommodate filming, crafted using models/replicas or actually real from the events more than 70 years ago. The soldiers gathering on the beach are crafted using cardboard cut-outs. Even when certain scenes are filmed in the lakes of The Netherlands, you cannot tell the difference between the actual filming location and Dunkirk itself. In a way, the film managed to be as realistic as possible by avoiding the pitfalls of computer-generated images in order to create a natural and seamless product as much as possible.
The cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema uses natural lighting at the moment to convey the gloom these characters faced and also uses subtle shades of blue to differentiate the characters. Even as I watched the film outside of IMAX or theatres, the film looks epic because of the way it is shot on traditional film cameras and IMAX equipment to make an impression in its original theatrical run. The sound mixing is also made as authentic as possible, maximizing the impact felt by these characters at specific scenes. Even the gunshots kind of rivals 1917 with its distinctive booms and impacts I can hear in my headphones, which shows the extensive level of detail Nolan has, down to the audio presentation.
A few flaws I may have with this film is owing to its slight continuity errors in between characters and the intersecting moment (look closely at the sunlight and clouds at specific scenes). Compared to other Nolan films like say, The Dark Knight Trilogy or Inception, the themes conveyed onscreen may not be as well-developed as strongly as that other films to stick to you at a deeper, profound level in your mind. A divisive factor behind this film is that some of the drama can also get lost in translation in Nolan's emphasis on survival for these characters, that again, it does not have the methodical emotional impact that his other works are known for. Even a small detracting aspect of me is how he uses text at the very beginning to set up the situation which can get a little bit on the nose for me.
But still, Dunkirk is all about the name of survival and desperation. Not so much on its characters or themes, but how events in time created solidarity between the air, land, and sea, in showing how nature stripped a soldier, a sailor, and a pilot, to their basic core of a human being. And it does that in a brutal, yet interesting presentation.
When I watched Dunkirk back in 2018, I have had issues with understanding the general narrative flow of this film, seeing the intersections of these moments between the characters and understanding how one's perspective may or may not co-relate to another's perspective. It may be chalked up due to me being tired returning from a long trip or the fact I am viewing the film on a small, tiny airplane monitor. The film was a mixed bag for me initially.
But as I rewatched this film today, I begin to understand why Nolan uses that unconventional narrative to separate these characters. How does time changes people's perspectives in a crucial situation. Even how he explores the essence of humanity using this triptych storytelling structure, sacrificing character development and deconstructing heroism and survival along the way.
Even if casual film fans do not entirely understand Inception and Interstellar scientific logic or complex storytelling will find this film to be somewhat more accessible to them. There is not much confusion when it comes to watching Dunkirk because the film is as simple it gets for Nolan, yet so convincingly conveys humanity in a horrifying situation beyond their control, using time differences to break down these perspectives and show how a crucial moment unite these unlikely figures together.
This film is not a mind-game as most of his other works have led you to believe, but it is simply a harrowing experience of humanity coming together in a dire situation.
Divisive? Maybe. But at least you got to appreciate the scale and specific qualities that Nolan puts in his most realistic film to date since his indie roots.
FOOTNOTE: *Don't want to jinx it, man.