Dunkirk: Nolan's War is a Different Kind of HellJul 19, 2017
Written by: Christopher Nolan
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard
All photos courtesy of Warner Brothers
As modern war movies go Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is the perfect complement to Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” In some ways, Dunkirk serves as an unsettling prequel to the relentless violence of Saving Private Ryan’s account of D-Day. Spielberg’s film excelled at placing a movie audience into the middle of the sensory overload of the “War is Hell” environment. Nolan, who wrote and directed Dunkirk, succeeds in equal measure with his film, albeit with a particular twist. The emotions experienced by the viewer are every bit as intense as Saving Private Ryan, but it’s a different kind of intensity. “Ryan” exploded in the middle of an audience like an artillery shell, catapulting viewers into chaos. “Dunkirk” is a masterpiece of slowly-rising dread, riding Nolan’s brilliant script, Hans Zimmer’s score and a non-linear storyline to blend a feeling of inescapable doom. It’s a sense captured perfectly by a line from Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) as he stares across the English Channel towards the British Isles: “You can almost see it (home) from here.”
The story of the Battle of Dunkirk is relatively straightforward. The German Army had trapped nearly 400,00 British and French troops along the French beach at Dunkirk, just south of the Belgium border and north of Calais. The English Channel is narrowest at that point, familiarly known as “The Strait of Dover,” just 47 miles wide. But German U-boats and aircraft were sinking practically every large vessel that tried to evacuate the soldiers. Military historians agree that the situation was bleak and if the Germans had managed to crush those troops the road to London would have been a cakewalk for the Nazis.
What Nolan accomplishes with his cinematic retelling of the near-miraculous evacuation of those forces, which set the stage for the rest of World War II, is remarkable and somewhat unusual by modern moving-going standards. Viewers will want to play close attention to the titles given to each of the first three scenes of the movie. They give clear indication that the story will be told in a nonlinear fashion, something that is easy to overlook.
There are minimal prolog and exposition to start the film, just a few basic facts and then viewers are immediately dropped onto the streets of Dunkirk. That’s where we find Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and a group of soldiers desperately foraging for food and water. An attack from a squad of German soldiers sends them scrambling for safety and spins the slow-burn story into action. Nolan introduces us to the other major players and storylines in quick succession. There’s Mr. Dawson (Marky Rylance) along with his son and a young family friend, aboard a small luxury boat that is called into service to help rescue the stranded soldiers. We also mee Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), a pair of gutsy RAF pilots who send their Spitfires into perilous battle with the Luftwaffe to protect the British ships and soldiers.
Nolan masterfully moves between each of the three storylines in a nonlinear fashion, ramping up the tension with the aid of Hans Zimmer’s score. Zimmer is a regular collaborator with Nolan and is in perfect form here. He uses a collection of omnipresent musical notes and audio cues throughout the film to augment Nolan’s slow-burn story-telling technique. The combination of cuts between the nonlinear story and Zimmer’s score draw the viewer into the feeling of slowly-building dread.
And it is that sense of dread that is the emotional core of Dunkirk. The German army is this massive and faceless presence. We see their weapons of war, the planes, torpedoes, bombs, and bullets. We see the impact of those weapons. But we never see a German face. They are there, ominously out of sight and prone to appear at unexpected moments. The feeling of uncertainty is completely unnerving. Whether you’re on the beach, on the dock trying to board a boat, or aboard one of those ships headed for home…there’s never a moment of safety.
The runtime for Dunkirk is set at 1 hour and 46 minutes, but by the end of the movie, you feel as if you’ve spent three days on the beach with the desperate troops. It’s just one more sign that Christopher Nolan is at the top of his game as a storyteller. Dunkirk is a movie worth multiple viewings.