Christopher Nolan’s genre-bending, unconventional masterpieces have elevated him to the status of geek guru. There's the twisty, haunting psychological thriller, Memento. There's the truly magical performance in The Prestige that challenges notions of love, tragedy and sacrifice. There's the The Dark Knight: permanently marked by Heath Ledger’s genius, ground-breaking and balanced performance. There's Inception, magnificent as eye candy, and yet full of empathy as it deals with loss and memory.
Dunkirk was supposed to be his first serious, down-to-Earth, based-on-real-events film. So, nobody knew what to expect. Would he follow Steven Spielberg’s example and forsake his glorious geeky past for a more grown-up, award-winning career? Or would he, inexplicably, pull a Michael Bay and turn a factual war tragedy (like the one at Pearl Harbor) into a pompous, patronizing spectacle? Well, it turned out he did neither. As the summer ends, let’s explore how #Dunkirk became the most critically acclaimed (and the only non-fandom movie) in both the top five of the season’s American box-office and the top 15 of 2017's world wide grosses thus far.
Warning: this article contains spoilers.
The Virtual Silence
It takes a while for a single word to be spoken on screen: “English,” shouts a very young soldier. He takes cover in the French fort before he is hastily (and non-verbally) guided to the beach where his compatriots await rescue. And then again, it is a while longer for another piece of meaningful dialogue to be heard. This theme of verbal scarcity is a constant throughout Dunkirk, where actors articulate only what is absolutely necessary. One example of this is when Commander Bolton states that the British military cannot evacuate the 400,000 stranded soldiers in time. Another is the irony of Churchill’s heroic words being read by a boy soldier at the end of the film. Most of the other dialogue is practically inaudible or consists of scattered words.
Dunkirk is nearly a silent film. It tells its story not with words, but with motion pictures accurately edited with fitting sounds. Hans Zimmer’s brilliant original score guides the pace of your heart with the appropriate tempo, communicating everything of substance in an uncensored, raw way. Case in point: the stretcher scene. After exchanging only a few looks, two soldiers understand and agree to carry, in haste, a wounded soldier to the hospital ship as a means of escaping the beach.
This narrative’s attitude of mistrusting words is extended to Nolan’s choice of actors. The “main” character, Tommy, is played by an unknown youngster named Fionn Whitehead. Tom Hardy once again (after The Dark Knight Rises) hides most of his face behind a Spitfire pilot’s mask. The super-star Harry Styles is borrowed from the pop music arena and is – to his and #ChristopherNolan’s credit – unrecognizable. And while there's Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, Cillian Murphy as his first, rescued passenger, Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton and James D’Arcy as Colonel Winnant, they are mainly known as either supporting actors or for their work behind the camera, and can barely be considered true celebrities.
The humans in this film are not larger than life: they are and could be anyone, like you or me. Just people struggling to stay alive in war.
The Deconstructed Narrative
Early on, Dunkirk maps out the different locations (The Mole/Earth, The Sea and The Air) and timelines (one week, one day and one hour, respectively) of each of the three threads of its narrative. Nolan does this simply and quietly, with a small piece of white text on the screen and no further explanation. The first impression is that the drama unfolds linearly and that the three stories occur concurrently, except then it’s in the dark of night when a rescue ship sinks near the mole, but the events in the sea and in the air still transpire in the light of day.
The suspense that has been drumming in your stomach is now augmented with senses of disorientation and anxiety. You feel deep in your core the panic Murphy's shivering soldier when he repeatedly states, “I’m not going back.” Time is broken as events of the past (earth), the present (sea) and the future (air) happen in tandem on the screen. The three timelines converge only for a few moments, around and aboard Mr. Dawson’s boat, well past the mid-point of the film’s duration, before they break apart once again. This lack of temporal regularity, with no clear beginning and a definite ending, makes Dunkirk an interactive experience.
This storytelling creates a bond between the viewer and the characters: like these humans stranded on the beach or in the sea, you feel uncertain and maybe even terrified. You are there with them. You do not know or care if it’s day or night, if you win or lose the war, who is friend and who is foe – what matters is to stay alive.
The War After
There are shootings, air fights, bombs dropping and ships sinking throughout the film, but Dunkirk does not actually explore this loud, bloody war. Instead, it traces the one that comes after: the one fought deep inside and on a personal level. This is the war that never really ends.
This is the war that strips everything away, apart from a ruthless survival instinct initially, and a brutal survivor’s guilt subsequently, when soldiers are about to return to some kind of everyday life. No matter the reassurances, or the gratitude they may receive from people like Mr. Dawson, or the words of Churchill read aloud from the newspaper, all of the characters in Dunkirk are clearly marked by the survival instinct of war. Churchill's words at the end sound particularly hollow and anything but victorious, as they seem to speak about another story, not the story of this film.
In tune with this film’s tagline (“Survival is victory”), the reality is that there are no war heroes here. There is no sense of accomplishment, fulfillment or redemption that characterizes other war films. The fate of the rescued soldiers on Mr. Dawson's boat, as well as the fate of the pilot captured back on the beach, remains uncertain. Thinking that if there is a hero here, this can only be George – Mr. Dawson’s young, wide-eyed shipmate, who has never been to war or carried a gun. He's the only one who bleeds, meets a certain faith, and is specifically named and remembered in the newspaper.
But then again, no. Is George the hero, or just an innocent victim? These are the kind of subversions Nolan makes to the war movie genre.
The Unorthodox Blockbusting
Uncensored by words, stars or heroes, fragmented in different timelines and points of view, with Zimmer’s evocative soundtrack acting as its “spinal cord," Dunkirk is not meant just to be watched – is meant to be experienced. This includes all of us: geeks, intellectuals, mainstreamers, together.
A passionate advocate of film, Nolan shot about 70% of Dunkirk in the full 70mm IMAX format, with a combination of 65mm IMAX and Super Panavision film for the remaining 30%. At the same time, he insisted on using real boats, real Spitfire planes, real places, real people and handmade special effects to re-enact the action for this film. He composed moving images that are breath-taking in scale, clarity, texture, and, yes, beauty. But his greatest feat is how seamlessly immersive these images are. They are not meant to impress or to distract you, only to pull you in.
So, did Dunkirk worth the hype for you? Or do you wish that Nolan returns to his geeky roots? Let me know in the comment's section below!