In anticipation of Dunkirk, I watched The Wages of Fear yesterday, the movie Christopher Nolan cites as his prime influence. I certainly got to watch a great French suspense classic in this bargain, but I don’t know if any movie could’ve possibly prepared me for what I was in for.Dunkirk, like Memento and Inception before it, is the kind of movie that has not only never been made before, but will probably never be imitated. Not successfully at least.
It’s the story of 11 fictional characters involved in the very real scenario of the Dunkirk evacuation. Each of these actors deserves a mention, so here goes:
1. Land: Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy.
2. Sea: Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan, Cillian Murphy.
3. Air: Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden.
Part of the triumph of this film is in not creating a hierarchy of lead and support among these characters, and in not highlighting anyone through their actions or personalities, so I won’t make any specific mentions either. Each of them, veteran, debutant or pop star, was perfectly cast in their role, each of them gave a subtle, understated performance, and none of them will, or should, get nominated for an Oscar. Each of them, however, deserves our respect for the honest and the respect in their depiction of what it might have felt like to be there.
Speaking of immersion, the only stars who really stand out in this movie are director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema, composer Hans Zimmer and writer-director Christopher Nolan. The movie pulls off the immense feat of looking and sounding visceral and rough without Saving Private Ryan levels of violence. Most of the suspense comes from the anticipation of danger. Long stretches of silence are as engaging in Nolan’s hands as tense dialogue in Tarantino’s. We care about the characters, not because we know them, but because we are right there, fighting the battles they are, relating to them on a more raw, fundamental level than understanding their hopes and dreams. Special shout outs to production designer Nathan Crowley who makes everything look like I imagine it would have, and editor Lee Smith, who navigates a labyrinthian narrative structure with a grace that ensure that attentiveness is rewarded.
The narrative is comprised of 3 parallel stories, featuring soldiers waiting for rescue on the Dunkirk beach, sailors coming to the beach and air force pilots trying to protect the vessels from German bombers. The first story takes place over a week, the second over a day and the third in an hour. It’s a Nolan movie, so of course you aren’t told when the movie shifts from one timeframe to another, you just have to keep your eyes peeled for transitions. The clues are all there, so if anyone tells you they found it difficult to follow, just resolve to look harder. The narratives intertwine in wonderful, awe-inspiring ways that kept me on the edge of my seat, making the experience so engaging that I thought the movie must’ve been going on for just an hour when in reality it had almost ended. Don’t expect the narrative to follow a traditional 3-act structure, Nolan clearly loves to play around with it. Batman Begins had 4 acts, The Dark Knight had too many to keep track of, and Dunkirk has 1. The entire movie is its climax. You must have noticed I haven’t given much setup or premise here. That’s not because I expect you to know already, it’s because I don’t think you need to. This one long climax works best with no more context than 3 sentences at the beginning of the movie provide.
Ultimately, the feelings I was left with were awe, respect, hope, optimism. A newfound respect for the capability of the human spirit (many refer to it as the Dunkirk spirit). That’s not me being sentimental. It would be, had the movie achieved this by showing every character as their best, most ideal selves. Instead, the movie manages to depict the ugly side of people which comes out under such stressful situations while keeping its focus on the good. It shows us that not all stories have a happy ending and makes us cheer for those that do. With Memento and The Prestige Nolan gave us stories of individual feelings and actions. With Interstellar and The Dark Knight Trilogy, he showed us how individuals relate to large communities like the city of Gotham or the entire human species. With Dunkirk, he has focused squarely on what Nolan calls “communal heroism”, and lovingly crafted an ode to the cumulative value of little acts of selflessness. It’s practically flawless, and is certainly the best war movie I have ever seen.