Dunkirk

Dunkirk ★★★★½

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 fight Kenneth Branagh when he tries to steal my cameras to make his Poirot movie


Trust Christopher Nolan to do the impossible. After a career of defying the odds, and building up a filmography of intelligent-yet-accessible blockbusters that didn’t dumb themselves down and yet still managed tp achieve widespread success, Nolan has pulled off his deftest trick yet; namely, he’s made an original war movie. Even more impressive; he’s made an original WWII movie.

I didn’t think that could even happen at this point. War movies have a strict formula, WWII movies even moreso. Yes, there are masterpieces in the genre that stand out, like Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, or Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, but even those movies feel of a type. There are precious few ways for a war movie to stand out; sometimes, you’ll get something like Hacksaw Ridge, which is so cartoonishly gory that you can’t help but take notice, but more often than not WWII movies tend to bend in with each other.

Dunkirk stands out from the pack, simply by virtue of being a Christopher Nolan movie, with all that that implies. Namely, it’s beautiful-looking, beautiful-sounding, structurally out-of-order, and deceptively emotional, in a way it’s all too easy to miss.

Yes, Dunkirk is a movie of deep and tangible emotion. Despite the fact that the main characters don't have names for most of the running time, the argument that this is an “emotionless” movie is pure, obvious nonsense. The emotion is there, deeply engrained within the very spirit of the movie. It's there when Kenneth Branagh, when talking to James D'Arcy, says “You can practically see it from here.” “What?” “Home.” And it's there when Mark Rylance, safe on the mainland with his children, willingly sails into dangerous waters because, simply, he has a job to do.

That’s just it; they all have jobs to do, and by god, they’re going to do it, for Queen and Country. This, even more so than last year’s 1917, is a pitch-perfect encapsulation of the very real, and uniquely British, stiff-upper-lip sensibilities. That sense of quiet pride - pride in the little country that could, that did stand up to unimaginable evil - charges Dunkirk at its core, imbuing it with a resonance that goes so much deeper than "I don't know what these character's names are! How am I supposed to relaaaaaaaate?!?"

Dunkirk, obviously, is a dramatization of the famous "Dunkirk evacuation" of WWII, where Allied soldiers, having escaped to the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk from France, had to wait on the shores to be rescued from naval ships, civilian ships, with every second they stay risking death from an enemy that's closing in. In true Christopher Nolan fashion, there's a twisty time-loop narrative structure that goes backwards, forwards, and occasionally doubles back onto itself; we have the "land" segment, which takes place over the course of one week, the "sea" segment, which takes place over the course of one day, and the "air" segment, which takes place over the course of one hour.

This doesn't really get explained to you at the jump (you just see the words LAND ONE WEEK, SEA ONE DAY, and AIR ONE HOUR flash on the screen when certain characters are introduced, without much context as to what that actually means). Some might see this as an issue, but I appreciate Nolan as a filmmaker who assumes the audience is as smart as he is, and doesn't insult us with overbearing hand-holding. The time wonkiness of the film's structure takes some puzzling out, but once YOU (yes, you, the audience member) figure it out for yourself, the feeling is extremely gratifying. You're trusted to keep up. And you DO keep up.

Dunkirk is pure cinema spectacle. The technical acumen Nolan has accumulated over his entire career is present in full force here, creating an experience so purely visceral, so absolutely immersive, that at a certain point you almost feel like you can taste the seawater they're surrounded by. God knows you can hear it; the sound design in this movie is godlike, with a ticking time-bomb of a score by Hans Zimmer that counts as perhaps his most thematically resonant score for any of his Nolan collaborations.

Characters in this movie rarely speak, which some took issue with, citing it as the main reason they never got emotionally invested in the story. I can sort of understand that sentiment, even though it's nonsense, obviously. If I were in the situation these boys were in, you can be damn sure I wouldn't be going around, telling people about my backstory, or personality traits, or the sweet gal I got waiting for me back home, so wouldn't it just be so sad if my character died? Dialogue like that is unnecessary for immersion, because, as mentioned, we're ALREADY immersed. Nolan uses real ships, real planes, real locations, and thousands and thousands of extras to re-create Dunkirk, and by god it works.

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