Christopher Nolan, the writer & director of some of the most inventive blockbusters, has reproduced that same success with Dunkirk. Film after film, Nolan has grown more ambitious in storytelling and scope. While his last three movies were somewhat weaker entries in his catalogue (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and Interstellar), he has produced a stunning masterpiece. It should be considered as one of the great films made this decade, and perhaps as one of the greatest war films.
Dunkirk was the tiny beach that British soldiers (“Tommies”) sat waiting with French and Commonwealth soldiers as the Blitzkreig wrapped around them, a boa of menacing metal and men. Approximately 400,000 British troops were stranded there, with no means of getting home via the usual means of the Navy. The full strength of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Navy would be needed for the eventual attack by the Germans. Instead of deploying them, Winston Churchill enlisted the help of 700 Little Ships, civilian boats with no means to protect themselves. Despite the overwhelming odds, the evacuation managed to save over 330,000 soldiers.
Nolan’s Dunkirk takes three strands of the evacuation effort and weaves them together in an immensely human and touching tapestry. Covering the land, sea, and air in different timeframes (a week, a day, and an hour) helps keep the viewer enraptured, watching as the different perspectives eventually fall into place. Nolan never forgets about the tragic elements of the retreat – the enormous cumulative suffering involved. Humans die in ways that make the viewer yearn for them to be saved, but not in the graphic way of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Dunkirk isn’t about the violence of war, rather, the humanity & bravery involved, the innocence lost, and the fight for survival against all odds.
Given such a heroic story, Nolan lives up to the weight of conveying the importance of the retreat, and the limitless courage that people are capable of. As one exchange in the film goes, the soldiers didn’t win, but they survived: “and that’s enough”. Nolan uses all of his signature methods, having honed in them earlier movies: the non-linear narrative in Memento; his use of incredible scenery shots in Interstellar and Inception; and making the most of the IMAX camera in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises; all welded together seamlessly to create a visual and emotional spectacle.
Dunkirk’s score and sound design fundamentally underpins the movie’s success. Music has always been important in Nolan’s films, but Dunkirk will probably be the highlight of his long time creative collaborator, composer Hans Zimmer. Techniques range from using the rhythmic thumping of a fighter jet to raise the heartrate of the viewer to the same beat, to having orchestral music crescendo as the camera pans over the hard navy-blue helmets of the Tommies, to deftly cutting all sounds bar enemy fighter plane engines as they strafe the soldiers stranded on the beach.
Dunkirk isn’t a perfect movie (Harry Styles is more wooden than some of the Little Ships involved, and the cast is almost universally white and male), but it is damn close. It is without question Nolan’s greatest film amongst an already impressive filmography.
Dunkirk is in cinemas.