It is impossible to talk about Dunkirk without discussing how the film is constructed. The movie is a 106 minute third act film, in which the tension does not let up for a second. Throughout his career, Nolan has popularized the concept of parallel action, especially during the final third of his films. Dunkirk establishes three narratives: soldiers trying to escape on the beach, regular people trying to rescue soldiers on the sea, and soldiers fighting in the air. There are two main factors to Dunkirk’s unconventional narrative. The first is the continual blending of the land, sea and air narratives. We stay with one group for a few minutes, then move onto the next, thereby constantly maintaining a heightened level of anxiety. Nolan edits out all the still moments. Long talks of childhood and lovers left behind are absent. Instead, when an obstacle in one narrative is executed, we immediately cut to another challenge. The second factor is that these three narratives do not run concurrently. The land battle may be taking place at night, but when we cut to the air, it is broad daylight. This method of storytelling is highly irregular in such a large studio film. In fact, I honestly cannot recall a similar story construction in any film, certainly not one lasting 106 minutes.
The film tells the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk, in which 400,000 Allied soldiers spent a week attempting to leave France via the beaches in Dunkirk. As these soldiers slowly try to make their way home, they are subjected to German assault from the air, land, and sea.
The human characters in Dunkirk are secondary. War is the main player. The tension, fear and brutality of war plagues the men of Dunkirk from first frame to last. No where are they safe. Instead, they are left to fend for themselves by any means necessary. There is honor in their survival – men help each other up, devise plans for escape; they open hatch doors and pull each other out of oiled sea. But this is not a typical war film. There are no grand speeches or lengthy war room decrees of strategy. We know nothing of the soldiers’ backstories. Hell, we rarely even know their names. Again, the main character is the war, the boys on the beach are pawns in the conflict. To tell a story without character development is to invest fully in your action, which is precisely what Nolan does here.
To help maintain the notion of war as character, Nolan has implemented a crew of the highest caliber. Hans Zimmer’s music is a thing onto itself. I’ve never heard anything like it. Typically in movies, score is used for a few minutes at a time to heighten the emotion of a scene. But in Dunkirk, Zimmer’s ceaselessly ticking melodies never let up. The music is as constant as the fear in the eyes of the human characters. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography also helps establish Dunkirk’s world. The movie was shot on 65mm film, much of it in the IMAX format. This provides a gritty, real, and very large insight into the hell of war. When you combine all that with Nolan’s reliance on practical effects (that is, using real WWII ships and real human extras instead of creating them digitally), you get what will be remembered as one cinema’s grandest war films.
Dunkirk’s dedication to authenticity, coupled with its narrative experimentation, will long be remembered. This is a masterful film; a war picture of the highest order. Many films achieve greatness by giving a fresh spin to familiar themes and concepts. Dunkirk, instead, presents something wholly unique. And even after its hype wears off, Dunkirk will be studied and admired for decades, enjoying its adulation as a film that introduced something new. A
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