Christopher Nolan’s stunning and bold war epic is one of his best films and hands down the best film of 2017 so far.
Christopher Nolan has made a career operating in intellectual big-budget filmmaking, a genre he almost . He’s mapped out a pathway for bending and twisting narrative structures like in Inception and Interstellar to receive blockbuster sized budget. With a natural sense of how to assimilate big ideas and bold (if sometimes not perfect) storytelling structure within explosions and action, Nolan’s success with The Dark Knight trilogy has opened up the doors for him to make original big-budget films that challenge the audience while pushing the filmmaking medium forward.
Dunkirk, Nolan’s latest, is intellectual in a different sense from his other films. With a capability for pretension and to get overly thematic and ambitious, the director sometimes distracts from the strengths of his talent. In other words, he sometimes is so obsessed about making his films about SOMETHING that he overcomplicates and escalates things for the sake of it. This was the big problem I had with his last film, the visually stunning but emotionally and narratively flawed Interstellar. That was a result of Nolan trying to replicate the pathological ambitions of Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey while sometimes losing that he could make a stunning space expedition of his own not beholden to any sort of classic standards.
Based on a real-life WWII event, Dunkirk forces Nolan to scale down his ambitions a bit. The true story hook limits his narrative boldness, forcing him to focus less on specific plot and more on his bread and butter of narrative structure (see: Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige). The stakes remain as high as any of his previous films, but Dunkirk is Nolan operating at his cleanest and most precisely brilliant, cutting the length of his film to under two hours to make for a leaner, more concentrated and intense piece. As a result, Dunkirk is appropriately incredible, a technical masterpiece and an unrelenting achievement in war filmmaking and big budget filmmaking.
There’s not so much a story to Dunkirk, but a previously untold reenactment of one of the most horrifying and intense events in World War II. May 1940, when over 400,000 Allied soldiers were trapped on the beach of Dunkirk, France by the German military. Told in three separate and eventually intersecting parts, Nolan’s script details three gripping angles of those moments, very cleverly using time as a way to place the segments.
Through the course of a week, we struggle with the thousands of soldiers desperately trying to get off the beach, where the Germans have started to pick them off from above. Particularly, the focus is on young men Tommy, Gibson and Alex (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and a surprisingly ver good Harry Styles). Through the course of a day, we board the civilian boats in England commissioned by the military to rescue the soldiers, specifically the vessel of Mr. Dawson (Oscar-winner Mark Rylance). Through the course of an hour, we thrillingly watch air force pilots Farrier and Collins (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) provide the soldiers with help from above against the assaults of the Nazis.
At a first naive glance, I thought Dunkirk’s PG-13 rating would be a hinderance and a distraction to the attempts to convey the true intensity and brutality of war. Pretty much all of the best war-based films of all-time have been rightfully slapped with a hard R rating, unflinching in their depiction of blood and guts on the battlefield. But then I realized that it’s not necessarily the gore that makes those films so effective, but how horrifying and nightmarish the atmosphere of war can be. Why are blood and guts fun in Rambo but not in Saving Private Ryan? Because in Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg shoots for horror and shows how in over their heads soldiers in a war truly are.
There may be little to no blood in Dunkirk (hell, last week’s War For the Planet of the Apes featured more carnage), but the sense of horror and danger is unavoidable. Like a constantly respawning video game player in Call of Duty, you feel trapped on this abandoned beach, basically a graveyard for thousands of young men with much of their lives left to live. For a film with as much visual scale as Dunkirk, Nolan exploits the fears of claustrophobia and the helplessness that comes with a seemingly inescapable doom. It’s palpable death and grimness from minute one, and Dunkirk is never willing to let you go.
The film’s structure will be polarizing, but I personally found the intercutting brilliant. Jumping back and forth between each story allows the pacing to flow much better than it would have if you had just had three separate parts, which would’ve felt like a series of vignettes rather than an overarching narrative. The balance struck between the three stories of Dunkirk not only ensures your continued investment in each of them, but overcompensates for any lack of character that may exist. Furthermore, as the suspense escalates, the three segments brilliantly play off of each other to create one big dramatic moment out of three separate set pieces. Most importantly, Dunkirk still feels like one unified event despite the triad, an informed and extremely comprehensive look at what happened in France.
Dunkirk may be Nolan’s most technically accomplished film through and through, with every single element of production jaw-droopingly well realized. As expected, the visuals are stunning and deserve to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Nolan really has an eye for painting-esque As of the time of this publication, I had yet to seen the film in IMAX or 70 MM, but I cannot wait to do so. As mentioned, the editing is as perfect as it can get in film. Hans Zimmer’ score is incredible and revolutionary, and it may be one of my favorite new film scores of all time. The film would lack much bravado and grandiosity without it.
After a mini-slump with Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan has achieved near perfection yet again with Dunkirk. It’s an unbelievably epic and harrowing experience that demands to be seen as soon as possible. Almost a silent film in its lack of meaningful dialogue, its sense of visual storytelling about an important tale on the biggest stage possible is awards-worthy. I will take this Nolan over almost every other director any day of the week, making technically stellar but cleaner and still emotionally resonant pictures. Dunkirk reminds us what he can do when he allows his natural talent to do the work for him, and the lack of complication and capitalization of his strengths pay off in suspenseful, astonishing dividends.