Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
With Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, and Harry Styles
Dunkirk is the film one should put forward making any argument for the continued use of film, 70mm in particular. Other advocates like Tarantino have come close, notably in The Hateful Eight. But Tarantino uses it in the classical sense of epic scope, mostly in landscape and establishing shots. The effect isn’t as intense in the more intimate camera setups. This is not the case in Dunkirk. Camera placement and format are a character. Nolan’s decisions in concert with Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, The Fighter) create an atmosphere of pressure, intimacy, and urgency. They fluctuate from the epic to the individual. From the big picture to one single attempt at survival. This is the heart of Dunkirk.
The anonymity of the characters is key. All are unnamed in dialogue all are expendable. The rank is unimportant. Nolan does not suggest Branagh’s life is ever more important or in less peril than any of his soldiers. The story unfolds skillfully as a series of action set pieces, interrupted by the briefest of dialogue and minimal exposition. Even the true historical event on which the film is based is not explained. The images explain it. Hundreds of thousands of British soldiers flee a futile effort to assist the French in defense of German invasion. Only suggestions of this “big picture” are made. Nolan makes it about the individuals. Although the stakes of the Brits losing the bulk of their army on that beach were high enough that historians agree it was essentially the Gettysburg of World War II. They saved the army, and possibly Europe itself, from the menace of the Reich that day on the beach. They had to evacuate the whole of that army to survive to defend Britain.
Tension. Hans Zimmer offers a subtle yet painfully effective score that functions as a ticking clock of sorts. It constantly reminds us that at the heart of the story is a race against time.
I love a film that opens “in medias res.” The stylistic choice of opening right in the middle of a scene. George Lucas sort of serialized it for the Star Wars films, all of which open in the middle of some occurrence in space. Dunkirk opens with a young soldier running to the British line as the Germans finalize their occupation of the city. This little moment puts the whole theme into view. Survive. You. Me. Us. Whoever. Survive.
Dunkirk is a more honest evaluation of the experience of a soldier in my opinion than most war films, excepting Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Not to say there are not moments of “brotherhood” or sacrifice, because there are. (Especially by the unnamed civilians dispatched to help ferry the soldiers off the beach.) But the moments of altruism are juxtaposed with individual struggles. Sequences that focus on one man’s peril, position, or choices. I don’t believe it was a coincidence the biggest acts of sacrifice are the films two biggest stars. Dunkirk shows us less of the “horrors of war”, (it’s not particularly graphic), in favor of the randomness of the courage and carnage alike. Some men escape by inches. Some men are vanquished by inches. And there is no sense to that is who. Some even perish by accident, by the actions of the well intended, or their own attempts at heroism. In final plot assessment, I observed a hierarchy of survival. The individual. The small group of soldiers. The pilots. The men on the ships. The Generals and Admirals. The Army. The Nation itself.
Very little of the “actual event” is explained onscreen. Nolan forgoes the endless exposition that would entail to keep Dunkirk clocking in at a pulse pounding one hour and forty-seven minutes full of near misses, near escapes, near hits, peril, and the persistence of hope.
A note on the 70mm cinematography. Van Hoytema uses his camera to summarize what the film is meant to convey in every way. It’s a fantastic achievement. A wonderful shot near the beginning ranks among the finest I’ve seen in years. As German bomber makes its preparations for a bombing run on the men who are sitting ducks on the beach, the camera seizes on the face of one soldier as he takes cover. Supervising ADR editor David Bach supplies a tense buildup as we hear the plane’s engine in full stereo Doppler effect as it passes overhead to come back around. The camera still hasn’t moved from the young man’s face. With the randomness of a storm of lightning strikes, the bomber makes its run. Bombs explode. Men are blown apart. The sound is cacophonous. The camera remains unmoved from his stricken expression. Dunkirk. One man. Sharing a struggle. But alone in the most horrific of moments.
The editing mostly serves to shift from one main story to another. There are three components. The beach, referred to as “The Mole,” the air support, and the civilian mission to ferry men off the beach, which in the end, did make all the difference.
Dunkirk had a large budget. But it felt small. War in your face. I found I couldn’t step outside and observe, as one can with so many “genre” films. The distance from one’s own reality allows for that. Not with Dunkirk. I’m not a soldier. I’ve never even held a gun. But I was there with them. Nolan found the humanity and connectivity in such a horrific experience and made a film full of unpredictable tension that would have impressed Hitchcock himself.
I found it to be Nolan’s best work to date. No need to rely on the gimmicks of Memento or Following, the character driven big budget power of Batman, or the admittedly brilliant sci-fi ideas of Interstellar and Inception. Dunkirk is a film that stands as a story. Homeric. War. Survive. Heroes are villains. We never see the real villains. No German is ever given much more than a second. A rare achievement for a midsummer film in box office competition with Guardians of the Galaxy 2. It is also a notable achievement of ensemble acting, again invoking the success of The Thin Red Line. Stars are present. But aren’t given star time. Lines are sparse. These guys did it for the love of cinema. And its shows.
Having seen the film in Digital Presentation and 70mm, I conclude 70mm has its superior merits. To most, the difference is negligible and in fact potentially annoying to see in 70mm due to the strange sight of “letter-boxing” in theaters with screens unable to accommodate the dimensions. But the tonality is so important to the story. The scope is epic. 70 mm is epic. The story requires intimacy among the actors and intimacy with the audience. The flatness of 70mm feels more like we are there as an audience. It looks like a film, but feels like life.
Dunkirk is not a war film. It’s not blood and guts. Guts and glory. None of that. Those sorts of things are there. But that’s not what the film is about. It’s a film about transporting an audience to a specific moment in world history, in an intimate manner so we can understand the stakes of the survival. Dunkirk galvanized the British people. It inspired Churchill’s famous “We will fight them on the beaches…” speech, which closes the film.
Good old fashioned British resolve.