The Word War II historical thriller “Dunkirk” isn’t the type of movie I’d normally expect from Christopher Nolan — whose resume includes “Interstellar,” “Inception,” and the Dark Knight trilogy. However, that’s one of the things I admire most about Nolan as a director. He never seems content to just coast on past successes; he strikes me as a person who always wants to push himself creatively and try something new.
“Dunkirk” is the true story of the evacuation of about 300,000 British and French soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, during the dark, early days of World War II when many feared the Nazi war machine was unstoppable. As the Germans pressed closer to the coast, the British Expeditionary Force found itself trapped and in an increasingly desperate situation. England called up a force of civilian boats of all sizes to come in and rescue the soldiers, saving thousands of lives and ensuring the British army survived to keep fighting.
Since Christopher Nolan is my husband Aaron’s favorite director and he joined me earlier this year for a Nolan blog-a-thon, I invited him back to share his thoughts on “Dunkirk” also.
As I mentioned before, this isn’t the type of movie I’d normally expect from Nolan, although stylistically it is still very much a Nolan film. In order to tell this story, he weaves together three different timelines: he follows a group of soldiers for one week on the beach; a civilian for one day who sails his boat to Dunkirk to participate in the rescue; and a pilot for one hour who flies in to clear the skies above Dunkirk. The use of three alternating timelines heightens the suspense, and it’s really cool to see the timelines start converging as the clock ticks down to the moment of rescue.
The characters and dialogue are actually pretty sparse here; there’s not a lot of talking, and we don’t get to dive too deeply into the character’s lives or personalities. Although I normally like movies that have a lot of character development and meaty dialogue, I respect that that’s not the kind of movie Nolan was trying to make here. The characters are everyday people in an extraordinary situation. Nolan could have picked any soldier, any civilian boat owner, or any pilot and used them as a lens through which to show this story — and that’s the point. “Dunkirk” gives us a snapshot of what it was like to live through one of the war’s darkest periods. We experience fear, frustration, and confusion right along with the people onscreen.
“Dunkirk” is certainly an intense film, and it actually triggered a panic attack for me during the scene where a German U-boat torpedoes an Allied ship and it starts sinking, trapping the soldiers inside. I felt my heart beating too fast but I made myself stay in the theater, because I wanted to experience what it would have been like for these young soldiers fighting in World War II. Parts of “Dunkirk” made me uncomfortable but it was good to get a better appreciation for the people who fought and died in the war.
Although “Dunkirk” is a somber, high-stakes film, it is beautifully shot, and Nolan really makes you feel like you are a part of the action, particularly in the scenes with the dog-fighting. You feel like you are in the cockpit with Tom Hardy’s Royal Air Force pilot (I would love to watch a Nolan movie with more true-life stories about WWI or WWII pilots). And there are a few moments of genuine emotional triumph, such as when the civilian ships finally appear over the horizon to save the day. I know Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton wasn’t the only person in the theater with tears in his eyes. Without giving away a spoiler, there is also a sad but lovely moment at the very end of the movie honoring a local boy’s act of heroism during the boat rescue.
While I don’t see myself watching “Dunkirk” over and over and over, I don’t think that’s the type of movie it was meant to be. It’s a cinematic experience, allowing audience members to relive an important moment in our past and giving us a deeper respect for history. Before watching this movie, I didn’t know the story of Dunkirk. I’m glad that now I do.
I really appreciate the fact that Christopher Nolan is never satisfied to just do the same old thing. A lot of directors have niches which they pretty much stick to. The infamous Michael Bay is the poster child for this, though I would say even Tarantino, with his varied genre films, does it as well. No person can be perfectly varied though and Nolan seems to feel most comfortable in two zones: crime dramas (“Memento,” “Inception,” “Insomnia”) and films about the triumph of the human spirit (“Interstellar,” the Dark Knight trilogy). “Dunkirk” fits very nicely into category number two.
Contrary to a lot of war films, it’s not about showing a bunch of fighting and a glorious victory. Very few enemies are shot and all three or so of them are fighter planes shot down by other fighter planes. It’s about retreat in the face of total defeat. Four hundred thousand Englishmen, not even counting Frenchmen, trapped in a small shore-side town, surrounded by an army with tanks and nearby landing strips for constant, unhindered aerial bombardment. It’s about endurance in the face of great adversity, where merely surviving is enough.
The thing that really makes this a Nolan film is that it is split into three sections. The soldiers on the beach (one week), the civilian boat (one day), and the fighter pilot (one hour). Sometimes the same event is shown multiple times from different perspectives, I think, to great effect. A ship being bombed looks a lot more distant in more than terms of length from a fighter plane versus a passenger on said boat.
The story is far simpler than his usual fare. Dialogue is sparse and long conversations are virtually non-existent. This leaves Nolan unable to shine as much in an area where he normally knocks it out of the park. I’m sure he could have come up with some excellent character-driven dialogue like he has in all his other movies, but it would have seemed out of place in a setting where men tend to avoid forming close bonds as any person may die at any time. For me, I appreciated his willingness to lay off the dialogue in favor of non-verbal acting.
One bit that I noticed which maybe some others didn’t pay attention to as much is how wonderfully English the characters are. Nolan’s been doing movies about Americans for a while and our emotions are worn a lot more on our sleeve than would’ve been normal for a 1940s Englishman. Kenneth Branagh’s well-acted Navy Admiral is stalwart and resolute in the favor of monstrous odds and admirably (get it) restrained when rescue arrives. The civilian boat pilot dutifully puts country before personal safety and fails to get riled even in the face of death. It pleased me to see the attention he paid to getting the correct behavior out of the actors.
That’s about all I have to say about “Dunkirk.” All in all, I liked it. It didn’t blow me away but I also wasn’t disappointed by anything. After all, not everything can be a magnum opus.