Dunkirk is an extraordinary war movie, that eschews the traditional sprawling format of its predecessors, filled with celebrity cameos and contrived expositionary dialogue. Instead Christopher Nolan manages to embrace the concept of “show, don’t tell”, yet uses what little dialogue he has to succinctly punctuate the unfolding story with emotion and gravitas. There is a sense of spectacle, yet it is far from the stark and dispassionate CGI we usually see. Through creative and focused editing Nolan generates a palpable sense of tension, be it in the air with extraordinary aerial dogfights or on the ground as men flee sinking ships and dodge artillery fire. Dunkirk facilitates an intense and emotional journey during its lean 106 minute running time. It is altogether a remarkable piece of cinema.
Dunkirk features a non-linear narrative with three separate stories that overlap, often providing a different perspective upon the other. The Mole follows three infantrymen as they try to jump the queue and find an alternative means off the beach. The Sea is the story of a Father and son who take their family boat to Dunkirk to rescue survivors and how they pick up a “shell shocked” soldier along the way. The Air focuses on three Spitfire pilots as they try to provide cover for the retreating ships. What Dunkirk doesn’t do is wallow in an excess of historical background detail, contrived patriotism or emotional manipulation. There is no Winston Churchill and more importantly no evil Nazis. The enemy remains conspicuously distant either sniping, shelling or dive bombing. Nolan places the audience in the centre of a military disaster, stripped of most of its subjective context. The tension and sense of threat is constant and authentic.
Hans Zimmer scores Dunkirk with discordant ambient tones. It is far from a traditional soundtrack but as stated, Dunkirk is not a traditional war movie. This is not just a movie about a major military defeat but a tale of those souls caught in the middle of it all. They do not have the benefit of historical hindsight and the film is effectively an exploration of men enduring catastrophic events happening around them. However, Dunkirk is not bereft of character development and there are strong performances by Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy. Rather than building complex backstories and playing with our feelings towards the cast, Christopher Nolan creates genuine jeopardy and is not averse to delivering tragedy without the ubiquitous clichéd Hollywood trappings.
A few critics have already accused Dunkirk as being a soulless representation of combat, citing similarities with the set pieces in the Call of Duty video game franchise. Yet this is not the case. Yes, the physical effects are staggering and the films technical excellence is beyond reproach. But there are touches of humanity conveyed through the subtlest use of dialogue or nuanced acting throughout the film. It is there when Mark Rylance tells Cillian Murphy “there’s no hiding from this son, there’s a job do”, and when Tom Hardy perceptibly winces as he realises that despite being low on fuel he cannot leave an allied ship exposed to a German bomber. It is in these honest scenes that Dunkirk finds its greatness. And when the armada of “little ships” finally arrives to strains of Hans Zimmer’s evocative variation of Nimrod, it is profoundly moving.
I suspect that in the same way Saving Private Ryan significantly altered the depiction of war in film back in 1998, Dunkirk may well have a similar effect henceforward. I’m sure some audiences may view the film through the prism of Brexit and vicariously try and champion it as a metaphor for their cause. However, I think that Christopher Nolan’s delineation of this military disaster that was spun in to a political triumph, elevates it above such partisan perspectives. Dunkirk is an intense, gripping and credible view of the nature of war and its impact upon those caught in it. It strength lies in vignettes of human drama set amid an epic and destructive canvas. It is also a compelling drama imbued with a tangible sense of suspense. Cinema seldom gets this good. Go see it on the biggest screen you can find.