If you listen closely throughout all the gunshots, torpedoes, bombings, and ocean waves crashing on the shores of the beach in Dunkirk, there’s one sound that’s a constant throughout the movie: a ticking clock. Whether there’s a moment where young British soldiers are staring out into the ocean wondering if they’ll ever make it home or when those same soldiers are desperately trying to escape a sinking ship, the seconds are ticking away in the background. What’s it counting down to? A victory? A loss? An attack? A death? It’s rare that something as simple as a tiny ticking sound is basically the centerpiece to a $150 million dollar war movie, then again it’s made by the same guy who used a spinning top as the “gotcha” moment of a summer blockbuster that made over $800 million.
That man is producer/writer/director/movie theater enthusiast Christopher Nolan, now on his 10th feature film after covering every possible major-movie genre from crime thriller to superhero action to intergalactic sci-fi philosophy. Since he’s not likely to ever try a screwball comedy or whimsical animation, the only thing left for him to do was a war movie. Thus we have Dunkirk, the story of how over 300,000 English soldiers made a desperate escape from the titular beaches in the north of France after being surrounded by German troops in 1940. Instead of rallying together for a last stand against the enemy, a group of soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles) do everything from using an injured soldier to weasel their way onto a medical ship to stealing an abandoned fishing boat just to find a way home. It’s not like their higher-ranking officers (Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy) have any better plans, almost certain the enemy will break through the remaining blockade and any moment. All the soldiers have left to rely on are a handful of Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) and civilian boats piloted by loyal citizens of England (Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney) to protect and save the soldiers.
Christopher Nolan is, above all else, a technician. He prefers practical effects over CGI, he uses IMAX cameras to shoot on 70 millimeter film, he researches the physics of space and wants his sets to actually spin for scenes. He doesn’t want audiences to watch movies, he wants audience to be IN his movies while sitting in their seats and he’ll do as much as he can to make that happen. Dunkirk is no exception, it might actually be the most immersive movie Nolan has ever made. Right from the opening frame, Nolan puts the audience right behind the soldiers walking aimlessly through an abandoned small town seeing the enemy propaganda showering over them. Then guns go off, and Nolan makes you run with soldiers with proper use of handheld camerawork. But Nolan knows when to hold his camera for the audience to take in the same vision as the soldiers are: lines of soldiers standing in the sand waiting for a ride home or a bomb to be dropped from the sky. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Her) juggle handheld and standard camerawork effortlessly, using the handheld sparingly to let the audience inhabit the fear and anxiousness of the soldiers. But even with his stoic shots, Nolan doesn’t stick with the standard. The audience gets to hang off the side of a British Spitfire plane in the middle of a dogfight and the inside of a sinking rescue ship as the water is filling the lower deck with soldiers clammering over each other. He even puts the audience underwater, asking them whether or not a soldier should drown in the ocean or reemerge into an oil fire to be burned. No matter the scenario, Nolan wants the audience right in the line of fire, not to nauseate people but put them in the mindset of the characters.
One of the key elements of Dunkirk is its atmosphere. No, Dunkirk is not a typical World War II rally cry movie. From the get-go, there’s the feeling of dread and hopelessness in the movie. It’s as if every character involved knows he’s going to die. It’s never actually said, though, as Nolan’s screenplay is very sparse with dialogue but the action does all the talking. It’s easy to call Dunkirk a bleak movie, but it doesn’t hit the audience over the head with muted colors or overtly dour music. Even with the imagery of men swimming aimlessly in the ocean or one soldier simply walking into the ocean in defeat, it simply adds to the tension of the movie. Not only is there that constant ticking in the background, but Hanz Zimmer’s score that builds a creeping sense of danger to each scene. Zimmer mostly goes for a slow burn, almost recreating the sounds of the metals in the bombed ships breaking with loud but low-pitched horns and haunting choir vocals in the background. And even though the colors of grey and dark blue are prominent throughout the movie, the colors don’t dilute the movie. On top of that is a strong use of natural sunlight and practical explosions to make the movie more realistic. Dunkirk prides itself on being as realistic as possible, not overly dark or reaching for heroic patriotism.
With a sparse script like this, one would think that acting and character are not essential qualities. While the movie is less about the acting and more about the action involved. The actors are more so vehicles for the audience to see the plot move forward. Granted, no one here is phoning it in. Whitehead, Barnard, and Styles are merely pawns, but the stress and fear on their faces is legitimate. What they deal is moral complications, abandoning their comrades or forcing their fellow soldiers to be the one to stick their head out into the line of fire. The rest of actors fill their roles in fine, no one’s looking for an Oscar but are merely bit players. The human element of the movie comes from Rylance and his two young passengers as three English citizens simply doing the right thing for their country. Even after they pick up a soldier (Cillian Murphy) who survived a u-boat attack whose visible shock is reason enough to turn back, they go forward accepting the terrible circumstances. Rylance, always a man of softer emotions, brings the most humanity to the movie when it’s needed.
At 106 minutes, Dunkirk flies by like a bullet in a battle. Like the wounds of war, Dunkirk stays with you. It feels like an old school war movie made with the ambition of a true craftsman. People will debate where Christopher Nolan stands in the pantheon of modern filmmakers with his ties to blockbusters. Is he a true filmmaking auteur or just knows how to pick crowd-pleasing blockbusters? Is he the next Kubrick or the new Spielberg? He’s Nolan, a technician who sees the potential in applying artistic craftsmanship to the size and scope of blockbuster movies. The only franchise that Dunkirk is promoting is human history, and for someone to make that as exciting as Spider-Man and Wonder Woman is a true feat. Dunkirk and its different screening formats are examples of the power of film. Does that sound corny? Sure, but it’s nice to see and talk about a summer blockbuster made with the same hope for the medium of film that the Allies had that helped them win the war.