We’ve seen him conquer the crime drama, the science fiction epic, the comic book movie...now Christopher Nolan attempts the World War II film, and pulls it off spectacularly.
War has been such a common focus in films, especially World War II, that the topic can seem redundant these days. There is certainly no shortage of great stories out there waiting to be told. But themes of bravery, gritty combat, or the folly of mankind can only be reassembled in a certain number of ways. Sooner or later you’re going to get tired of opening different packages which all contain the same thing. Like western films, it's a genre that has thinned out considerably over the years because of oversaturation. Only when filmmakers have a unique story or come up with a crafty method does a modern WWII film gain traction. With Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan has both a unique story and a unique way of telling that story.
Dunkirk tells the story of the battle of Dunkirk, which, unlike most WW II films, took place early in the war. Here, the German armies had flanked the British expeditiary forces and separated them from the larger allied armies to the south. Backed up against the English Chanel, the British forces fortified in Dunkirk to withstand constant German aerial and U-boat attacks. A conditional surrender was a topic that the British government was considering. However, a decision by the Germans to hault their attack and consolidate their troops gave the British three days to try and save their army. Using any available boats, including civillian ships, the British put together an ambitious plan to bring their troops back home.
What Nolan does to make this unique premise standout is to frame the reality of war in an almost surreal manner. It’s a surprisingly and unapologetically optimistic picture. Despite telling the story of one of the largest military disasters of WWII, it manages to find a positive spin. From hopelessness, Dunkirk finds hope. It also paints its picture in a breathtakingly beautiful way. Despite all the death and destruction going on, the world seems colorful, dynamic, and full of energy. Nolan doesn’t bog down his audience with dark tones and moody atmosphere. We get bright and cheery, even though there’s nothing bright and cheery about it. It’s odd, but in a compelling way like no one has ever attempted before.
A great example of Nolan working to position Dunkirk against our expectations is his depiction of violence. War films often pride themselves on bringing the conflict to life. They want to make the audience feel the struggle and the pain to the fullest extent possible in order for them to better appreciate the themes. To do this, they can be intense, tedious, and bloody. Dunkirk is an intense film, but it's not a bloody one. Nolan has made an effective war film without gore. Like Kubrick’s Path of Glory, this is a war film in which we never actually see the enemy’s faces. We know they are out there. We hear their gunfire, we see their planes, and we feel the threat of their breath breathing down the backs of our vulnerable characters. Yet Nolan doesn’t need an antagonist to start his drama, and he doesn’t need blood and guts to make his point.
To advance his plot, Nolan uses the staples of the genre, but in a way you haven’t seen a lot of before. First, there’s the drive for survival. Many of the characters are just trying to do everything they can to get out of the conflict alive. They aren’t trying to fight their way out, and they aren’t always putting on their bravest face. Instead, they are looking for the easy exit, even at the expense of their fellow soldiers. Second, we have armed conflict. There are aerial dogfights, but each of them is staged with an impending sense of doom towards failure rather than victory. Rapidly depleting resources is a common idea that helps Nolan create a virtual clock that counts down as the tension ramps up. There are explosions and gunfire, but the British are the only ones taking fire and losing ships. Rarely do they fight back simply because they have no means to. In a sense our characters are all backed against a wall with a gun pointed at them, and the way(s) they slither out of it is what makes it interesting, not how they take action to change their fate.
Dunkirk is told from the perspectives of 4 main characters. The way their stories unfold is perhaps the most compelling part of this film. In true Nolan fashion, the story doesn’t unfold chronologically. It jumps between these plot threads, forward and back in time. If anyone else would have assembled their war film in such a manner, it might have come off as a gimmick. Yet Nolan has always had a knack for telling his stories out of order, and that experience pays off here. Nolan has assembled Dunkirk in such a way that the scenes unfold to push the drama and the energy of the picture overall. Each moment adds to the one that precedes it.
Once the storylines start to intersect, there are times when you know what will happen in one scene because you have already seen it unfold in another. Yet the different experience of seeing those moments play out again from another perspective offers a more complete path to analyze the events that take place and the characters that are involved. What seems like a moment of brilliant glory at first, later feels like an unfortunate catastrophe in another, and vice versa. In this way Nolan isn’t just retelling a story from the past. He’s giving you the opportunity to investigate it. The film isn’t necessarily the most historically accurate, but it’s not trying to be. It’s actually imperfectly historic for a reason. It invites the audience to consider the past in a more inclusive, rather than presumptive way.
To bring his story to life, Nolan populates his film with a lot of familiar faces, but a few new ones too. Nolan’s continued collaborations with Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, and Tom Hardy again serve him well. It’s Tom Hardy as a wide-eyed fighter pilot who makes for one of the films most easily agreeable characters and performances. Mark Rylance is new to a Nolan film, but his skill and experience as an actor really stands out, bringing a sense of calm and focus to the chaos and peril that unfolds. Some of the actors that the audience may be unfamiliar with, such as Tom Glyn-Carney and Jack Lowden do a great job, while the others are merely passable. Overall, the acting is probably one of the weakest parts of this film, but Nolan has crafted it in such a way that the acting is not critical to the film’s overall success anyway. A moody atmosphere and drawn-out sequences without dialogue cause it to unfold like a silent epic. Here, body language and facial expressions carry the mood, and Nolan does a good job capturing those emotive signals from his cast.
Dunkirk is a masterpiece of filmmaking not just because it is well made, and tells an interesting story in an inventive way. Dunkirk is a great film because it is also exciting to watch. Everything that has gone into it, from the visuals to another stellar soundtrack courtesy of Hans Zimmer really come together to have a maximum impact on the audience. Where war films of the past have been known to rely on a fast pace or hard-hitting action to draw in the audience’s attention, Dunkirk is more subtle. With his picture and his sounds, Nolan creates a large sweeping adventure, yet the commitment to structure and storytelling allows for a rare intimacy with the audience. In many ways Dunkirk feels like the type of grandiose epic film that Hollywood no longer produces, yet is also something that technologically could never have been achieved before now.