Dunkirk is not your typical war movie, it’s better
I always found war movies to be a quick cash grab capable of bringing American movie-goers of all ages to their nearest theater. It’s that kind of universally liked movie that can make money, win Oscars, and there is an abundance of war stories to choose from. Don’t get me wrong, there are some impressive war movies out there like Saving Private Ryan and last year’s Hacksaw Ridge. However, I’ve never seen a war story so masterfully done quite like Nolan’s Dunkirk. It transcends its movie qualities to become a cinematic experience constantly playing with your sensory system.
Dunkirk retells the story of WWII’s Battle at Dunkirk where 400 000 men were trapped on the beach as the Germans were bombing them and pulling closer and closer. The story is told from different view points and mostly follows Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), an ordinary soldier trying to survive.
Although it might sound rather straight forward, Dunkirk is anything other than. From the first shot, Nolan puts you directly in the action. Just like our main character, the audience is anything but ready. Shots are fired from different angles and all you can do is go along with the ride. It’s an effective and clever way to start the film feeling like your in the war yourself. Nolan refuses to give any explanation or proper introduction to any characters as he should. He treats this film like a war zone invoking a sense of unpredictability and intensity.
As intense as it is, it wouldn’t be a Christopher Nolan film without his signature narrative structure. In the past, it didn’t always succeed (Interstellar may come up here) but other times, it is pure enjoyment (Memento, anybody?). As with both of these film, Nolan finds another creative way to tell his story and this time, it works wonders. Dunkirk doesn’t follow a straight forward narrative. Instead, it moves back and forth while switching to different perspectives. Nolan moves freely without tying everything before the movie ends. Much like his other films, it’s left to the audience to piece together and find the clues spread throughout. Luckily, it isn’t as complicated as Inception or jumbled like Interstellar mostly because it’s not the focus of the film.
Essentially, Dunkirk is engineered to be a cinematic experience first. Using various cinematic techniques, Nolan is able to thin, if not erase, the space between the audience and the screen. All of the heighten elements make way for a movie experience like no other. Han Zimmer’s dramatic building score gives way to many breath holding moments. The claustrophobic sound design created what felt like a painfully realistic portrayal of war. As with, Hoyte van Hoytema’s gloomy bluish tinted cinematography set a grim tone throughout the film. And of course, Nolan’s intricate direction and his ability to sculpt the perfect atmosphere using all these elements is what truly gives Dunkirk its finishing touches.
For traditionalists, there might be a slight hesitation toward the fact that the story isn’t character-driven. Nolan isn’t interested in how our characters feel through the trauma of war. Dunkirk is more concern with giving its audience a feeling of intensity. And while the focus isn’t necessarily on the characters, it doesn’t mean that they are not interesting. You root for each and every one of them because of the untimely situation they are in and not because of their personal problems. Nolan doesn’t create that emotion from the characters but by how the overall situation is portrayed.
As war movies go, Dunkirk is the best of the bunch. Its ability to engage on a deeper level while using every inch of filmmaking is beyond words. There’s a feel, a visual, a sound, a taste and a smell to Dunkirk as it slides past the physical border of filmmaking. It seems rather impossible yet Nolan’s incredible direction and his team have sculpted one, if not, the best movie of 2017.
Dunkirk is released in theaters July 21.