This is one of a very few select theatrical films coming out this year that I’ve been eager to see. The number of films I’m willing to shell out money for (let alone time) has been dwindling over the past couple years, and this year has accelerated that trend for me. Christopher Nolan has never disappointed me. He always makes an extra effort that most director’s wouldn’t even bother with nowadays. Most directors are like, “Hey, this ain’t the pre-milennium anymore dude. We can take the easy way out with CG, it just depends on how much money and time we throw at it.” Christopher Nolan tends to be like, “You bag of pussies! CG is the easy way out! There aren’t enough blood sweat and tears to be felt with CG. Practical effects are where it is and always will be at. CG is just another way to compliment them much like stop-motion and animated drawings of the past did.” Sure enough, he brings that to this movie.
Dunkirk is not like most other war films. I’m not talking about terms of special effects and the way the film is shot, though those aspects are great here. I’m talking about the pacing, the feel of it. A feeling that can only be captured thanks to loyal music partner Hans Zimmer, who is becoming as associated with Nolan as John Williams was to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Like Inception and Interstellar, there’s that “tick-tock tick-tock” beat to the music, as if counting down to something happening, or giving the feeling that the protagonists on-screen need to get something done soon before they run out of time. The music makes the entire film feel like one gigantic sequence as opposed to several sequences put together to make a film. Don’t get me wrong, the film is still very much the latter, but the music tends to encourage you to forget that. That is what separates it from most other war films, which are usually composed of big gigantic shootouts/explosions with a few long stretches of silence between each action sequence, like Saving Private Ryan or A Bridge Too Far. There is the other category, that of the non-stop action type like Black Hawk Down or We Were Soldiers. This film is its own category, something that feels like a blend of the two. I won’t say that alone makes the film outstanding, but for now it does make it more unique, and unique is something we don’t get enough of nowadays. Enjoy it while you can.
The film focuses on 3 separate characters, for 3 different views on the event. A soldier on the ground with all the other thousands of soldiers. A fighter pilot trying to shoot down German bombers and fighters in the hopes if providing the relief those on the ground so desperately need. And the crew of a civilian boat on their way to Dunkirk with many other civilian boats to evacuate the soldiers. Each view is arguably as engaging as the other, but I found myself most invested in the fighter pilots. Because it is a breathe of fresh air seeing these plane sequences shot so well and realistically as this, especially compared to George Lucas’ Red Tails (he thinks they fly the exact same way as X-Wings). How the camera moves in an off-balance way so the viewer gets the same sense as the pilots when they’re maneuvering. Some of the most engrossing fighter plane shots I’ve seen since Cowboy Bebop: The Movie.
But the most terrifying aspects come from the soldiers on the ground, who are always in fear of the sound of the next plane to arrive and shoot them down or blow them and their ships up. And unlike most other war films, the enemy (ze Germans) is never clearly seen. The bullets tend to come playing suddenly and/or out of the corner of the camera. Because in reality, soldiers don’t tend to see who/what is shooting at them before they have to react and run for cover. That, and how they continually have to pick themselves up after each close-call, from standing back up after laying down on the beach after a bombing run, to swimming from a ship after it sinks (and trying not to get stuck within the confines of the ship and drown), to avoiding the flames of ignited oil spilled all around the ocean waters. An exhausting nightmare that never seems to end.
Then comes the aspect of hope, of home, personified by the crew of the civilian ship, risking their lives in their non-military-equipped vessel to save who they can where military vessels could not (because they are bigger targets for plane bombings and U-boat torpedoes). The ones I was least-interested in, but that’s not saying much because I still found them investing, and perfectly complimenting the other two perspectives in the film.
The theme seems to be about the victory in surviving, the victory in being brave enough to rescue those in need, of putting others before yourself. And being able to live or help others to live so they can go on to fight another day. It’s personified in this final speech made from the reading of a newspaper.
So, long story short, I recommend this film. It’s a different sort of war film, even if it wouldn’t seem that way on paper, or from watching the trailers. My rating could go higher upon a rewatch, but I’m not sure. I enjoyed the film, I’m just not sure right now how much the joy factor should be. What I do know is that I didn’t find there to be a single weak scene in the film. Plus I can’t help but appreciate such a film that has so much practical effects and actual planes and ships and stuff, yet it somehow underplays the special effect aspect, making sure it never overtakes the narrative, but rather compliments it perfectly.
Edit: Read a review that contains a brilliant analysis that I have to bring up here:
Like I said, storywise it’s straightforward. But this is still a Nolan film and like in practically all of his other films, he just cant keep it simple. He chooses to tell his story disjointed. Once I started noticing there was something off in the way certain scenes followed each other I felt that ‘Nolan dread’ creep upon me, feeling sure he messed it up yet again. Fortunately that couldn’t be further from the truth. A ticking clock is what makes it work.
Time is messed up in this film. We switch between three narratives but they are not always synchronized. What this does is that in Dunkirk, time simply disappears, there is only now and the next moment we need to survive. That beach felt like purgatory, a place you can’t escape from. This a-synchronous approach could make it all feel too loosely connected and confusing, but Nolan manages to find urgency in each and every frame of his film. And for that he uses a simple trick. A constant ticking clock in the background. It is what ties everything together, no matter how hard you try, you can’t escape time. And that clock becomes as big a monster as the faceless beast stalking that beach.
— written by DirkH of letterboxd.com