by Henry Kulick
Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s first major motion picture that doesn’t take place deep within the subconscious or far into the reaches of space. There are no superheroes, only real ones. This fictional portrayal of the real evacuation that happened in Dunkirk, France during WWII is Nolan’s most real movie to date, and it’s a modern spectacle. Through all the telltale signs of a Nolan film—musical score, cinematography, and direction—Dunkirk is a film for the ages.
Dunkirk’s story isn’t about one, or even ten characters. It’s the story of the thousands of soldiers who took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk and the tribulations that occurred during that harrowing week. To effectively tell a story of such scale, Nolan relies on three different, interweaving narrative paths: one from land, one from the sea, and one from the skies.
The story that follows the soldiers on land is titled “The Mole,” in reference to the large wooden causeway that reached out into the ocean from the beach, at which the soldiers desperately gathered as they awaited their seabound evacuation. The other two paths are titled as expected: “The Sea” and “The Air.”
All of these stories differ in length, from a whole week, to a single day, to a fleeting hour. It’s true that these stories intertwine, but it’s up to the viewer to assemble that connection. It may take a moment to click (especially which such a large difference in time), but when it does, the three stories become one.
Usually, a film’s connecting piece comes through characters. Obviously, the writing and the direction has to be on par whenever a film is telling multiple stories—and the majority of Dunkirk‘s writing and direction is. But Dunkirk also relies heavily on an ensemble cast of phenomenal actors to embody major players in this large-scale story.
Nolan trademarks like Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy are major drivers for moving their respective stories forward, but also merging them with the other stories. Many faces you’ll recognize, and they’re usually playing a senior role within this military flick, but it’s the faces that you don’t recognize (or recognize for something other than acting) that’ll blow you away.
“The Mole” focuses on the everyday men that served in the British military’s lower ranks. Their story is the longest and filled with the most hardship. Sure, every story in Dunkirk involves hardship, but “The Mole” tells the story of young men at war and the sacrifices they’re forced to make.
The actors in “The Mole” are almost all unknowns. Richard Branagh is giving orders, and James D’arcy is there with him, but they’re not the focus—and rightfully so. The most recognizable face in the young band of warriors has to be One Direction’s Harry Styles. It helped that I couldn’t name a single One Direction song, but everyone should view Styles as a talented actor because he doesn’t feel like a gimmick or a nod. He’s a young man portraying a soldier trying his best to survive, whatever the costs.
In the same vein, “The Sea” isn’t about large-scale naval battles, but rather the everyday British citizens who make the journey across the English channel to save their countrymen. This too is a story filled with young faces and reinforces that the younger actors of this cast carry Dunkirk on their back.
What’s most impressive—and probably Dunkirk’s greatest achievement—is that these young actor carried the film with minimal amounts of dialogue. I mean “minimal” to the core of its definition. There was so little dialogue, sometimes I felt like I was watching one elongated version of the bank robbery scene from The Dark Knight.
Did Nolan choose to cut down on dialogue to combat criticism that his movies are usually too dialogue heavy? Maybe. Regardless, it took a lot of skill to create a film of this nature without having the soldiers screaming orders at one another or pleading for their life.
To compensate for the minimal dialogue, Dunkirk uses sound like no other movie this year has. While Baby Driver will keep your earbuds dancing through a feature-rich soundtrack, Dunkirk keeps its hands on your pulse through a constant reminder of time.
From the moment the film starts, so does the constant tick-tick-tick of a pocket watch. Even though the three threads of the narrative take place in different scales of time, you’re constantly reminded of its importance through the sound of the watch.
To the soldiers, it’s a reminder of the ever-advancing enemy. To the civilian sea captain, it marks every second he pulls further away from home and closer to a war zone. To the fighter pilot whose fuel levels are always diminishing, the clock reminds us he’s flying on borrowed time.
All of these clocks stop at a certain point in the movie and I guarantee your jaws will be hanging when they do. Dunkirk takes such a simple sound and uses it to masterful effect, something no other recent film has managed to do.
It has to be noted that there’s an incredible score composed by Hans Zimmer as well. It’s filled with those Inception-esque deep horns that accentuate the more terrorizing scenes of Dunkirk. The ocean is a major setting for all three stories, and the horns emanate from the dark depths like a beast that’s ready to swallow anyone who sinks too low.
The biggest fault in Dunkirk comes from some of the rushed scenes needed to advance the larger story. With so much going on, it’s no surprise there were times when things didn’t get the attention that they needed, but thankfully this was kept to a minimum. When it did happen, though, it was during some pivotal moments of the film.
For example, the fate of a certain character during “The Sea” was soured by how swiftly it came about. It was rushed and became almost a bit silly in the process. There’s another moment during the climax of the film that was small-scale deus ex machina, but I suppose war films always need the final victory to come from the unexpected. This kind of thing happened in Saving Private Ryan, among countless other war films too.
It wouldn’t be a Nolan film without some breathtaking cinematography. With thousands of extras and epic set pieces, the battle sequences are genuinely heart-pumping. Surprisingly, there’s no blood or flying limbs anywhere in the movie. In a move that could’ve cheapened the experience, these battle sequences are instead elegant in their presentation. There are harsh realities in war, we all know that, but these scenes instead serve to show the audience the constant pressure the soldiers were under, not the unpleasantries of death on the battlefield.
“The Air” takes the cake for the most well-shot portion of the film. Telling only an hour’s worth of the overall week, Tom Hardy’s battles in the sky look and feel genuinely real. Being accurate to the times and fitting to the larger story’s atmosphere was incredibly important here, being that they’re somewhat detached from the battle below. Thankfully, it’s achieved in full.
And almost like a cherry on top, Hardy’s final scene in the movie—only about ten seconds long—is one of the most beautiful shots to appear in a modern film. Undoubtedly, it will be used in future film classes as an example of composition, colour, and character placement.
Through everything—the good and the okay—Dunkirk achieved masterful levels of storytelling. Is it the best war film ever told? No, I don’t believe so. But Dunkirk didn’t set out to take that throne. It’s a story about everyday people, both in and out of the armed service, doing what’s needed. In that lens, Dunkirk is a crowning success.
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Henry Kulick is an InFocus blogger and film writer who’s almost always in front of a screen. He’s always looking for the newest worthwhile stories to drool over, and they’re almost always in film and television. That’s where you’ll find him. You can also find him on Twitter (@Gatorfolk).