Dunkirk | Review

You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory – victory at all costs, victory in spite of terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. - Winston Churchill

Imagine, for a moment, war, at its simplest and most obvious; violent conflict between two opposing sides, neither of which will yield to the other until all is lost for one, and all is gained for the other. I think for most people, that's the picture that's painted on the image of the word 'war' in our minds. Violence for victory. Violence for loss. Death for thousands so that millions will live. So that our side's ideals are held strong. So that the enemy is crushed and stamped out and forgotten. 

War is terrible, though I know it's far worse for those who have experienced it for themselves. 

And yet, we tell so many stories about war. We raise heroes up for their bravery, for their daring and their valor on the battlefield. We glorify the lives of those that were saved because of the sacrifices of the ones who were lost, whom we honor with the utmost reverence. There's something about war that seems, for most people, to have a certain and specific connection to us, whether it's read through the written word or watched on the silver screen.

For the latter, movies like Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, The Thin Red Line, and so many others hold our attention rapt, eyes locked on the stories being show to us, on the losses and gains by the men and women who's lives are on display. Whether those stories are fictitious or not, we value them because of what they represent; sacrifice and death for victory, for freedom, for survival. That's war. And even though war is terrible, it's worth telling stories about. 


Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is a monumental achievement in the pantheon of great war movies. The word "masterpiece" is being thrown around a lot in many, many reviews from top critics all over the world. I tend to not read any reviews for a movie until I've seen it, but the buzz that was created from these early reactions was hard to ignore until I sat down and saw the film for myself in the Lincoln Square AMC IMAX theater in New York City on July 20th. And of course, it was a 70mm print.

If you couldn't tell, this film is an event unto itself. Nolan might be the only filmmaker around that I'm willing to drive four hours round-trip and then walk 60 blocks for, all in order to see a movie in one specific format. 

When you think about it, the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation (known as Operation Dynamo) isn't necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think about "great" war stories. For one, it was preceded by a massive loss at the hands of the encroaching German army which forced the British onto the beaches of Dunkirk, effectively stranding nearly 400,000 men along the coast of the English Chanel. So right off the bat, the situation is, as Churchill stated, "a colossal military disaster". 

But this is where the film starts. Right there, in the streets of Dunkirk. On the ground, or The Mole, as the film informs us. We don't stay there for long however. Dunkirk is another one of Nolan's exercises in non-linear storytelling; a triptych that's told from the perspective of the ground (the soldiers on the beach), of the air (the Spitfire pilots flying overhead), and of the sea (the civilians who crossed the English Chanel to rescue as many soldier as they could.) But each perspective is also told from a different time-frame, with the soldier's stories being told over the course of a week, the civilian sailor's over a single day, and the pilot's over just one hour -- they all converge on each other eventually, giving us the opportunity to watch a few key moments in the film from multiple perspectives. 

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It's a method of storytelling that's wholly unique to Nolan's specific brand of epic. Blockbusters are usually content to have their characters explain the plot to us scene by scene. But with Dunkirk, the audience is treated to a story that not only engages primarily through it's stunning visuals but also through it's incredibly tight, tense editing style and sparse dialogue. 

I said before that many critics were using the term "masterpiece", and if there's one thing I can say that's true for, it's the editing. Lee Smith deserves and Oscar for his work here, and there's no doubt in my mind that the film will be nominated in this category, as well as for Best Cinematography because my God... the camerawork in Dunkirk is second to none, especially the aerial photography. After his incredible work on Interstellar, Hoyte Van Hoytema returned again to the DP's chair for this film, though judging from the behind the scenes clips, he didn't do much sitting.

The IMAX cameras they used for the movie create such a striking and viscerally engaging image on the screen that it really is like you're there on the beaches as bombs are dropping down on top of you, or in the cockpit of a Spitfire while dog-fighting against a Luftwaffe Stuka. It's an experience that demands to be seen on the biggest screen and with the loudest speakers possible. And just as a warning: this movie is loud. Like, louder than any other movie you've ever seen in your life. Each bullet explodes around you, each impact hits with a piercing metallic ringing, and explosions shudder your seats with their force. It sounds like war, or as close as our eardrums can handle without shattering. It's incredible.

I've been avoiding talking about the story itself because, for one thing, it really is an experience. The acting by many of the newcomers like Harry Styles, Tom Glynn-Carney, and especially Fionn Whitehead is really solid, as is the work done by Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, and James D'Arcy. Though to be perfectly honestly, there's really not a ton of dialogue in the film overall. Most of the performances are based more on the physical reactions of the characters to the situations they're in, which in a war movie like Dunkirk, seems more than appropriate. There's a narrative for each of the three perspective, but they're all so tightly woven together that to talk about one is to talk about the others. If there's one thing I hate, it's spoiling a film like this one, where you want to be surprised and taken for a ride without knowing what's coming next. And that ride is one of increasing tension and stress as the movie progresses.

I don't know if I've ever felt such a mounting sense of unease and finger-twitching intensity than when I was watching Dunkirk, and that feeling is only added to by the musical score of the film, once again done by Hans Zimmer. It features a ticking watch that ratchets up and down along with the action throughout the movie, and once the credits finally started rolling, it was like the sound was still playing between my ears for the rest of the night.  

For all the fervor and buzz surrounding any of Nolan's projects, I think there's absolutely something different about Dunkirk. Whereas in most of his films, you connect emotionally with the characters, I seemed to connect more with the situation itself than with any one person that was portrayed. Yes, there are moments of heroism and cowardice that define those characters, but the emotions attached to those scenes aren't what drive the film forwards. They're simply individual moments that form the whole of the experience, each one the ticking of a watch that makes up an hour, or a day, or a week... and I think that's the point that Nolan might've been trying to make with Dunkirk.

War isn't simply one story told well. It's a thousand stories put together that form a collective event. And that's what the movie ultimately succeeds in showing us; an evacuation that was a victory in itself. A survival that shaped our world. 


Kyle BaileyComment