Written & Directed by Christopher Nolan
Believe it or not, Christopher Nolan is a controversial film director. “Controversial” is probably a little extreme, all right, you got me. What I mean to say is that there is a rather vocal group who tends to think Nolan is the greatest filmmaker of his generation and one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Just look at IMDb and you can see how highly rated his films are among his fanboys. Then there are those who rebel against this notion and seem to go too far in the opposite direction just to fight the fight against him belonging in that conversation. What results is two growing, opposing factions that can’t agree on the abilities of a filmmaker. The reality of the situation is that Christopher Nolan is likely somewhere in the middle. I won’t scoff at those who find him to be the best there ever was, but bottom line is Nolan is a talented filmmaker who shows great ambition and skill. Too often we get caught up on supposedly having better taste, or knowing more about film that the other guy. Let’s just enjoy his films for what they are.
Unfortunately, Dunkirk, Nolan’s latest effort, will likely elicit the same responses we’ve seen before: incredible praise followed by significant backlash. Is it fair? I’ll let you decide. For one thing, Nolan goes away from the epic storytelling many have become accustomed to with his latest films. Dunkirk is a swift, tense 100 minutes. And while it is a war film, which suggests a certain level of epic, he keeps the story small, isolated to a single beach and port where hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers have been cornered by Nazi Germany during WWII. Deperate to escape across the English Channel to safety, privates and admirals alike must do everything they can to survive before the Nazi’s completely slaughter them.
What is fascinating about a film like Dunkirk is its scope. Most war films get caught up in the hoorah! culture of the military, celebrating the brave accomplishments of the courageous soldiers who go off to fight noble and just wars. World War II was certainly noble and just, but with victories came defeats. And with defeats came the ability to survive, to persevere to the war’s conclusion. Dunkirk is not a pretty picture, no matter what the great cinematography looks like. But Nolan is able to capture the hope within the hopeless, showing heroes not as those who killed the most Nazis, but those who saved the most lives, who saved their own lives. Surviving is half the battle, and living to fight another day was never more important than during the constant deluge of the horrors of war during World War II.
To this point, while I have mentioned Nolan’s name a few times, I haven’t mentioned any of the actors. It has its stars (Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy), but mostly this is an ensemble film with relative unknowns (Jack Lowden, Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard). The film manages to follow three storylines while ultimately intersect: a group of foot soldiers trying to escape the beach, two fighter pilots tasked with protecting the helpless soldiers from the air, and an English sailor who takes it upon himself to traverse the channel in his small boat to rescue soldiers in need. Some will complain that we never get to know these characters, causing the whole affair to be less emotional, kept more at arms length. I found the complete opposite to be true. Nolan, by painting in broad character strokes, is able to encapsulate the experience of 400,000 soldiers trapped with nowhere to go, with the horror of almost certain death at any moment.
I feel as though almost all war movies are inherently anti-war. Even as they may celebrate the heroism and triumph of the military, there is not shortage of horror shown in any given film of the genre. People die, arms, legs, souls are lost. People affected for the rest of their lives. Dunkirk is a film which manages to depict a war as an ugly thing, something in which we hope to never see our friends and family involved, and yet it does so without showing blood. It does so without hardly showing the enemy. There are no Nazis here, the enemy is unseen, which is all the more terrorizing. There is no blood here, which makes death all the more numbing. We don’t necessarily see the horrors of war, and yet the film is just as horrifying as any other war film I have seen. Nolan’s magic manages this with tense, suspenseful filmmaking, thanks in large part to one of his better screenwriting efforts.
Dunkirk, while having mostly unnamed characters and very little dialogue, manages to be one of the most emotional and soul crushing war films I’ve ever seen. Nolan and his team use all their filmmaking prowess to create an atmosphere of dread and doom. Each time there is even a little bit of hope, it becomes dashed. The sound design, cinematography, and even Hans Zimmer’s often bombastic and overly intrusive score combine for something special. But as I said in my opening, sometimes the greatest victories are those in which you simply survive. It is hard to count the Battle of Dunkirk as a victory. It unequivocally is not a French/British victory. But without the ultimate “success” of evacuation, the war effort would have been seriously depleted. As with life, losing the battle is okay so long as you survive to win the war. Dunkirk exemplifies the best tenancies from Christopher Nolan, making it one of his best, most truly affecting films he’s ever made.