Summary: British soldiers must be extracted from the beaches of Dunkirk in World War II.
I finally did it! I saw Dunkirk! And I really enjoyed it. I think it was rightfully nominated for Best Picture, Christopher Nolan delivers us some amazing visuals… Not only is Dunkirk visually amazing (particularly in the flight sequences) and a technical marvel, but it has a really incredible pacing with tangible tension- without the typical gratuitous violence and R-rating we associate with the genre.
A borderline suspense movie, Dunkirk is about an extraction mission told from three perspectives that take over different amount of time: a foot soldier waiting for a boat (a week), a pilot protecting the beaches from enemy bombers (one hour), and a civilian boat that volunteers to help with the efforts (one day). I just went through a bunch of random reviews of Dunkirk to catch up with the public vote and it seems pretty divided for fair reasons- not enough character development, kind of hard to understand them/feel for them because we don’t know them, the timelines that don’t exactly match up until the end, etc.
I get it- it’s such a different approach from what we’ve seen or come to expect from what’s classified as a war movie and it’s a pretty ambitious and experimental piece and honestly, we haven’t really seen too many filmmakers take this kind of risk within the genre.
Which… I don’t think a lot of people were expecting when they went to see this. I think they went in thinking “traditional war movie.” Overall, I think people are desensitized to violence and the term “war movie” too often means lots of blood and gratuity- so it was quite an experience being completely invested and absorbed in this movie, feeling on edge, and then realizing I hadn’t seen any actual combat with enemy soldiers. That alone sets Dunkirk in another kind of conversation. When we think of classic war movies- Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, even The Hurt Locker– we’re given a mission, some backstory to make us feel connected to the characters (and sad if they get killed), a couple of campfire scenes, brotherhood, a couple of general-ranked officials debating about what they can do and can’t, etc. We don’t really get any of those except “We have to get those men off the beach!” And I think this works (incredibly) with what the feeling of what Nolan was trying to evoke and the story he wanted to tell- something strictly from being in those situations, with a limited view of what other people were trying to do. A story of suspense and unknowing much like how the soldiers felt in those moments, if you will.
Now, he wasn’t trying to tell us a story about specific soldiers, like a sergeant or whoever- this should be obvious from the naming of Cillian Murphy’s character- “Shivering Man.” It’s a story that evokes, which builds on the feelings of obligation and survival and trying to portray accuracy of being in these events, using an “on the ground” perspective. I don’t think I needed to see “war room” scenes to understand the human elements of survival and the longing of wanting to go home. I heard people complained about the exclusion of French soldiers and the leaving out of information such as political decisions, etc.- but none of this is necessary. Realistically, these soldiers don’t have this kind of information and I don’t need that information to relate to what’s going on on-screen. It’s not an informative, homework piece in the traditional sense of a historic war movie. The movie implants us right in the midst of retreat, where people don’t really know what’s going on, and takes us out right after. Now, if this had been a basic WWII movie, yes, we’d have a legitimate argument for needing that to feed us certain information- but Dunkirk’s focus on specific situations removes the need for this. The information is minimal to give us our in-the-moment senses.
Not saying those traditional elements don’t work and those movies don’t work (they obviously do and I’m a fan of each), but it’s incredibly unfair and limiting to the genre to say that it can only be effective or get its themes and points across in certain ways.
There’s a real poignancy, tensity, and eeriness to Dunkirk that couldn’t have been achieved in a traditional war movie format- and I think tonally, this is one of the best war movies I’ve ever seen, if not in my top three. Nolan is just so good at making audiences feel in the moment and immersed in the environment. I hope other filmmakers are able to use what Nolan did in this to elevate the genre.
PS: I need to give a shout out to Hans Zimmer, who- once again- just knocks it out of the park. I can see why he gave up superhero movies and I’m glad he’s gotten back to his experimental roots because that’s really where he shines.