Having directed some of the biggest movies of the last decade (such as Inception and The Dark Knight Trilogy), the Christopher Nolan brand has become synonymous with imaginative, mind-bending success. But now that he’s decided to make his mark on the war genre, as have so many influential directors before him (Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket), has he brought that same magic to a story which many have lovingly dubbed “just men waiting on a beach”?
The answer is a solid, resounding yes.
Set in France during World War Two, Dunkirk follows 400,000 soldiers who have been driven back to the English Channel by Nazi forces, and await Navy evacuation under fire. Having the majority of the British forces trapped some 40km away from home was labelled by Churchill “a colossal military disaster,” and the extent of it shows. Droves of soldiers wait lined up for hours in waist-deep water for an evacuation that may never come, German planes scream overhead picking off men ten at a time, and looks exchanged between soldiers convey an overwhelming despair.
However, while it possesses a striking and tragic setting, the evacuation admittedly doesn’t have much story to it, forcing alterations to the typical ‘Nolan’ formula. Firstly, the movie run time is far more compact than his previous efforts, clocking in at a modest 107 minutes, but, rest assured, given the intensity of the ride, an hour fifty is plenty. Secondly, the plot is told not only on land, but also in the air and at sea, each storyline taking up vastly different lengths of time and meeting at key points in the movie. Followers of Nolan’s work will be reminded of similar techniques used in earlier works such as Memento and Interstellar, and, while disorientating at first, its seamless execution adds another dimension to the story. When Dunkirk does let up on the action and gives you time to breathe, the pauses can overstay their welcome, slowing the movie considerably. However, these breaks aren’t wasted, building atmosphere or character, and there are more than enough scenes filmed with brilliant, visceral intensity to make up for any lapse in pace.
None of the characters are given a backstory, or much dialogue at all, rendering their character base a blank slate to be written only by their actions in war. This lends clear contrast to the plot, as being bombed will clearly make some heroes and drive others to madness. Many have criticised this lack of narration, comparing Dunkirk chiefly to Saving Private Ryan, in which the opposite approach is taken. Yes, you are distanced from the characters, but Nolan reaches a compromise by still allowing some character progression, while ensuring the scale and danger of the situation are always the main focus. I believe, given the tone of the film, that it works. This isn’t a study of the soldiers, but rather the event as a whole, and besides, “my gal back home” is likely the last conversation you’d have while dodging gunfire.
Production wise, the movie looks and sounds phenomenal. Five million dollars were set aside to import and restore authentic craft from the era for live filming, and the impact is stunning. Having a camera in the cockpit of an airborne Spitfire, or fixed to the mast of an actual Destroyer as it sinks, lends a brutal realism to the film, and in an age where no less than 50 swarming TIE fighters will suffice for a climactic battle, it’s a welcome masterclass on what can be done with clear skies and a set of crosshairs.
While Dunkirk sometimes loses its pace, it is made up for through intertwining plot lines, a tense setting, and terrific cinematography. Christopher Nolan can rest easy knowing his war epic will likely be studied for decades, and go down in cinematic history as a classic.