Dunkirk has opened in theaters to both critical (93% on Rotten Tomatoes) and box office (reportedly “The film has now earned $63.8m domestic in five days of release” on Forbes) success. Dunkirk is the recent film written and directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Night Trilogy, Memento, Inception) as he attempts to capture the events on and near the beaches of Dunkirk during WWII. Going into seeing Dunkirk I went in almost entirely blind, all I knew going in was it going to be about some war stuff but its a Christopher Nolan film so in terms of technical production I’m sure it will be stunning. After viewing it if asked about what happened in the movie I would say I don’t know some war stuff, but it’s Christopher Nolan so in terms of everything regarding technical production it was stunning.
An Experimental War Movie
At first glance Dunkirk might seem like your typical war film, but then you quickly remember that Nolan has no desire to play into conventions. The film juggles multiple plots between a wide array of characters that through mixed chronology plot points, rapid editing, and balancing character’s stories does the tension and chaos of war translate to the screen. War movies have grown into its own sort of genre but how much variance to the formula is there out there. Your typical war film has a certain squadron which a hero and other types getting to know each other and go into battle and realize how severe war is and physically and mentally survive the brutality of war. I think one of the major complaints of Dunkirk is going to be the minimal time on character development and presentation of a story-driven narrative. In terms of an audience member being invested in a character do we really need a complete backstory of:
Hi, I’m Desmond Doss. I got a lovely girl back home and want to perform my civic duty of fighting in the war but I don’t want to kill no body because one time I almost killed my brother with a brick when I was younger. My dad is a cranky old war vet, and I have a hobby of hiking up mountains. )
Don’t get me wrong I enjoyed Hacksaw Ridge (This film is a bio-pic and a traditional classic story hence there’s nothing wrong with developing character) but at the same time Dunkirk displays how we don’t need all this to create character sympathy but through an understanding of the horrors of war that the audience will inherently feel sympathetic towards a character. I think it’s a respectable effort to try and avoids the stock elements of a war film and attempts to create a unique viewing experience taking full advantage of the medium.
Dunkirk and The Film Medium
Dunkirk displays masterful execution in almost every category of production. The film does not feature a shortage of cinematic shots. While many still frames on their own look gorgeous, the variance of shots often switching between displays of intense and up-close action and other shots showcasing the scope of the landscape and the vastness of the soldiers on the beaches do wonderfully juxtaposed from one another. The film also had plenty of striking performances, Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies, BFG) gives a nice performance as a citizen operating a non-militant boat and picking up soldiers stranded at sea. The entire cast gives convincing performances and are impressive in selling themselves independent of dialogue as there is not much dialogue or at the very least, less than your typical screenplay. Hans Zimmer finds himself providing the score for Nolan yet again, and while maybe not the most memorable it aides the film adding to the audience’s anxiety and co-exists well with the rapid editing of the film. Of course, Nolan is able to display brilliance behind the control panel of the director’s chair. One oversight to most, is that I was impressed how Nolan was able to control extras. Some shots involved wide views of the beach with hundreds of extras that is a daunting task that couldn’t be portrayed as well if not done by a veteran director such as Nolan himself. Dunkirk in a way is a similar endeavor for Nolan as The Dark Knight Trilogy in that Nolan ignores the pre-existing material of the subject and crafts it into his own vision to bring something new to the table. Nolan’s film however, aren’t just well appreciated because of his exoticism with the material, but he still engrains the same emotional soul of his predecessors. People don’t just like The Dark Knight Trilogy because it was an unusual representation but they enjoyed it because it just understood the character of Batman. The same could be said for Dunkirk in that it’s not gaining praise for being strange but rather that it understands our rooted interest in the triumph and tragedy of a great war story.
I for one enjoy the technical aspects of film-making but even perfect execution does not make a perfect film. A film needs story and an ultimate goal to get the audience to achieve some sort of reaction out of the audience. While I found there to be “enough” present in Dunkirk, I would expect your typical movie goer might disagree. There are a couple of scenes that I thought made good plot points but noticed how much better they could have been if there was some development with these character, a stronger attempt at making a more empathetic viewer during these moments. David Cox of The Guardian wrote a review that reflects negatively on the film, and while I disagree with his stance on the film as a whole, I do want to acknowledge some of the points he had made against the film. While earlier I mentioned how Nolan was able to enhance the scope with the use of plenty of extras but at the same time David Cox points out how when we do take another step further how barren the entire beach can be. I can admit when looking at the setting in its entirety it could leave you wondering “where is everybody” especially in terms of large vessels and aircrafts. While Cox calls for more CGI I do admire how Nolan was able to produce so much naturally but do agree that sometimes it did feel a little void. The best complaint of Cox is that of the missing element of blood. In his words, he states:
“It is a 12A effort that avoids blood and guts as thoroughly as it avoids so much else. In the film, people hit by bombs die discreetly, with no unseemly dismemberment. Even abandoning a torpedoed ship doesn’t seem too unpleasant.”
I actually agree with this point in that it is possibly one of the most polished war depictions. Would it really hurt for the film to get its shoe dirtied a bit, for any queasy viewers who have yet to see the film I would say you have little to worry about. There’s one scene that truly highlighted this to me. I’m not one to close my eyes during scenes of violence but I will feel numb if I hear a story about a broken arm or wince at a brutal horror movie slaughter but boy during the scene when one guy caught on fire did I find that I couldn’t have reacted any less. You would think a depiction of a person bursting into flames would be gruesome but its strangely downplayed in its depiction and just sort of happens.
I think people who are looking for a causal movie on the weekend are going to leave the theater confused and wanting more of a story. On the opposite spectrum, I feel people who appreciate cinema and crafting films will be greatly impressed with the recent Nolan effort. The film takes full advantage of the visual medium of a film, and clearly wouldn’t succeed as novel of any sorts. The film does deliver a resounding message, I think it will be one of those film that viewers will like to revisit, and develops in a way that it’s difficult to enjoy at surface value but rather reveals itself through interpretation. Dunkirk isn’t your predictable war movie genre film but rather an experimental and well executed journey out to the beaches of Dunkirk.
What did you think about the film Dunkirk?