Film Review: Christopher Nolan rejuvenates the war film genre with "Dunkirk"
My Pop had a simple policy when it came to war movies: “None of that Yank crap”. While my WWII viewing experiences expanded beyond the works of Spielberg and Hanks, Pop stuck to his British cinematic diet, telling me that the English did away with all that “rubbish” about honour and just told the story without the frills.
After viewing Dunkirk, I think the old boy might have been on to something.
The culmination of 25 years of work from Christopher Nolan, the man behind the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and Interstellar, Dunkirk’s story is simple yet tailor made for a war epic. As the Germans push allied forces out of France in mid 1940, English and French armies find themselves trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, a small costal town in northern France. Fearing further losses, the British high command refuse to commit tactical resources to extract the 400,000 odd troops left kicking around on the sand and instead send in 700 commercial and private vessels to bring the troops back across the channel to safety. Nolan tells the story through the perspectives of those in the air, on the sea and on land.
How Dunkirk starts to differentiate itself is in how it tells its story. There's an unmistakable reliance on sharp sound design and breathtaking cinematography that emphasises the frantic and instinctual nature of survival. The enemy is nowhere to be seen either, except as planes in the sky, adding an agitated sense of panicked confusion to the proceedings.
Nolan continues his fascination with experimenting with time, telling the story in a non-linear fashion. This type of narrative is a hallmark of Nolan’s (used previously in Memento, Inception and Interstellar), but Dunkirk features his most polished rendition of this yet. And rather than leaving viewers confused about what is happening, the changes in time serve to build the tension, and the final culmination is all the more powerful because of it.
It's this tension that separates Dunkirk from other war films. Nolan is able to make the audience feel the anxiety and desperation of the soldiers, rather than rely on graphic imagery to remind us how depraved war is. Nolan also continues his partnership with the prolific Hans Zimmer, who trades in the usual orchestral crescendos for eerie walls of sound. And the insistent sound of a clock ticking away as the intensity rises is unmistakable.
Where Dunkirk does find some common ground with its contemporaries is in its casting of relatively unknowns. With the exceptions of previous Nolan collaborators, Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, as well as Harry Styles and Kenneth Branagh, the predominately British cast is not only unrecognisable, but up to the task. With little dialogue and no war room scenes to convey the context, it's left to the beached soldiers to convey what Dunkirk is: a terrifyingly temporary stay of execution. Tom Hardy steals the show as an audacious spitfire pilot (there’s a lot to be said about just how powerful someone’s eyes can be). Credit must also be given to stage actor Mark Rylance, who has some fantastic moments as the captain of a civilian vessel tasked with collecting the stranded soldiers.
My criticisms of Dunkirk are few and far between. Although Nolan has definitely taken some liberties with the retelling, I definitely subscribe to the “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story” school of thought. Even aspects of the story that felt as if they had little relevance played an important role. Nolan is a master of producing the good kind of cheese; the ability to use something cheap to illicit an emotional response from the audience but in a way that isn't insulting. The end result is a greater appreciation of the characters and their arduous journey.
Though I’m not sure if Pop would approve of the non-linear retelling, the uniquely British story of which there are heroes but no winners is the type of film he spoke fondly of when berating my American viewing habits. While Nolan doesn’t touch upon new ground with his direction, he doesn’t need to. Instead he uses the techniques he has honed over his career to build a sense of tension unlike any other war movie.
Despite a continued fascination with time and the ways in which Dunkirk contradicts what we might think a war movie looks like, this is not another Nolan brain teaser, but rather a proper war film, and one of the greatest of its generation.