By Nathan Evans
I’m sad to say I did everything in my power to put off seeing Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster ‘Dunkirk’; the World War II drama that chronicles ‘The Miracle of Dunkirk”; an event that saw the evacuation of the seemingly doomed Allied forces from the beaches of France. I’ve been a die hard Nolan fan ever since the director revolutionized comic book films with the first and best entry in his ‘Dark Knight Trilogy’, ‘Batman Begins’ (which still remains, to this day, the single greatest comic book film ever made). Since then I’ve made it a point to engage with everything the director has put out, from his short student film ‘Doodlebug’ to his greatest film ‘The Prestige’. Nolan’s never let me down, but when ‘Dunkirk’ was announced I was conflicted.
While I love Nolan, I have a severe distaste for entertainment that revolves around World War II. I understand and appreciate the war’s historical significance, and am extremely grateful for all of the people that served during the conflict, but when it comes to entertainment, it’s simply a subject I’m sick of seeing. Maybe it’s the result of growing up in a time where every other video game that was released revolved around WWII or because of shows like ‘Band of Brothers’ or films like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ being so popular, but any interest I might have had in the war on a cinematic level was quickly extinguished by overexposure. With that said, I should’ve had faith in Nolan as he’s yet again crafted another complex, intelligent film that pushes the boundaries of what cinema can do while relying almost solely on old school filmmaking techniques.
Nolan comes at ‘Dunkirk’ with his usual clinical, chronologically fluid approach. The film follows three separate stories that interconnect in intriguing ways. The first story follows a young soldier named Tommy portrayed by newcomer Fionn Whitehead. Tommy is only one of the thousands of soldiers trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk and the film tracks him over the course of a week as he attempts to find a way out of the battle. The second story concerns itself with a pair of British RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) over the course of an hour as they attempt to take down the dive bombers pounding the Allied forces at Dunkirk. The third and final story chronicles the activation of the British civilian fleet over the course of a single day. Oscar winner Mark Rylance portrays Mr. Dawson, a weekend sailor who wants to do his part to save the trapped soldiers. He’s joined by his son, Peter (another newcomer Tom Glynn-Carney) and his son’s school friend, George (Barry Keoghan).
Utilizing this unique structure, Nolan manages to keep the film tense throughout. The constant time jumping throws several curveballs into the proceedings; at times filling the audience with trepidation as we watch soldiers scramble to enact a plan we know is doomed to fail from what we’ve already seen in another viewpoint; while at other times putting us at ease because we know exactly when help will arrive at the right moment. Like he’s done with every film before, Nolan has designed an ingenious puzzle and delights in allowing us to watch him assemble it.
While watching the pieces of the puzzle come together is captivating, because the film is so concerned with its structure the characters take a backseat to the plot. Nolan’s a filmmaker that’s been accused in the past of being too cold with his filmmaking, and ‘Dunkirk’ does lend some credence to the argument. There is minimal dialogue throughout the film and as a result we don’t get to learn too much about the characters we’re following. While I believe this to be an intentional decision, one that immerses us even further into the proceedings, I can’t help but feel just a bit more background on the characters would’ve leant more weight to the moments where Nolan is trying to elicit an emotional reaction from his audience.
The one emotion Nolan is perfectly adept at eliciting is dread, and here he once again leans hard on his longtime collaborator, composer Hans Zimmer, to deliver it. Zimmer’s score is as clever as Nolan’s structure, utilizing the ticking of a watch to drive the film forward. The incessant sound serves to ratchet the tension up to an almost unbearable degree, and the few moments where it’s dropped in favor of the harsh strings that signify a fresh attack are near heart stopping. Zimmer is a composer who is commercially appreciated, but is often critically dismissed. With his work here on ‘Dunkirk’, I argue that he’s a valuable resource in an aural cinematic landscape that is quickly in danger of being monopolized by Michael Giacchino (I love many Giacchino scores, but let’s be real: a lot of his stuff runs together).
For all of its technical strengths, ‘Dunkirk’s’ strongest asset is Nolan’s penchant for realism. This film is a major studio production, but it might be the least conventional war film I’ve ever seen. Even the greatest war epics tend to glamorize war in some way; giving characters impossible heroic moments or having them spout impassioned speeches when things look their bleakest. You won’t find any of that in ‘Dunkirk’. Nolan presents war as what it most likely is: a desperate, chaotic struggle for survival. He doesn’t undermine or under appreciate the efforts of the men that died during the war; on the contrary, he honors them by presenting us with a simulation of the hell that they went through so we could maintain our ideals.
Though the subject matter is heavy and Nolan’s gaze dispassionate, ‘Dunkirk’ is a film about hope. Despite keeping its audience in suspense for nearly all of its 106 minutes, and traumatizing every single one of its characters, the film ends on notes of optimism. It’s an example of what summer blockbusters are capable of achieving when they’re constructed by a filmmaker with a vision.
RATING: 4.5 OUT OF 5
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