“We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” – Winston Churchill
Most, of the war films I’ve seen post Saving Private Ryan have been about American soldiers and the battles they’ve fought during World War II, Vietnam, and more recent wars, save for the war sequences of Atonement. It was refreshing to see a World War II film yesterday afternoon that was shown from the perspective of British soldiers, and with the German enemy only shown for just barely a few seconds. It’s a perspective we used to encounter often decades ago that for one reason or another fell to the wayside. Hopefully this masterfully crafted piece of cinema will encourage other directors to widen their landscapes and tell more stories from the British perspective, or perhaps even the French or another allied nation.
By now you have no doubt seen many talking up a storm about this year’s undeniable “masterpiece”, and that it should be a major Oscar contender for Christopher Nolan when the season hits its stride in a few months. I dislike using the word masterpiece to encapsulate all of my positive thoughts about any given movie, and I feel it is quite often improperly attributed toward movies that aren’t actually considered masterpieces some years after they’re released. Film culture has this odd habit of using a wide assortment of colourful, hyperbolic wordage to emphasize how good a movie is during its first couple of weeks in theatres, yet the majority of movies dubbed a masterpiece during Oscar bait season seem to fade into obscurity. But the film being heralded as a masterpiece over the last week, I believe wholeheartedly, will be regarded as such decades from now and for a worthy variety of reasons, but most of all because of the way the imagery lingers within your mind like dirt under your fingernails.
There’s an image I can’t shake no matter how hard I try, of a man looking upon a fire that’s been, for lack of a better word, burned into my mind since the moment my eyes bore witness to it. If I close my eyes, or think of it in my minds eye, I can see it as clearly as if it were happening right in front of me in this very moment. To be honest, I can see nearly the entire movie that clearly, I remember much of it so well having seen it just under a day ago, but it’s images of smaller moments that seem to have been etched into my mind with a hot knife better than others. One would think the more traditionally spectacular moments, of boats exploding and planes being shot down, would stick out in one’s mind the way they always seem to with other war movies, but surprisingly, and refreshingly, that just isn’t the case here. No, I remember the man watching the fire grow as the sun sets, a trio of young men watching a fellow soldier wade suicidally into treacherous waters, a pilot running on fumes while gliding past thousands of men on the beach as they cheer.
Dunkirk is a war film comprised of small moments such as those that, when put together in the form of a complete picture, creates the sensation of a much larger war epic without ever having to actually become one. Yes, it’s a war movie that shows us Christopher Nolan’s perspective on Dunkirk, but it’s not about the war itself, but rather these small moments within the war and the collective struggle of soldiers and common folk affected by the event, and the personal toll the war takes on every soul who had the misfortune of experiencing it.
Much has been made about a lack of a single protagonist for audiences to latch onto and invest themselves in, as if the lack of such a character is a major deprivation for audiences that’ll leave you feeling cold and emotionally detached from the movie. That’s just not true. Dunkirk is about the collective experience of the soldiers and civilians who were a part of this event, and by not choosing a single person to use as our guide through this hellish experience, Nolan allows the audience to feel like they’re right there amongst the soldiers and sailors as planes swoop overhead and bombs periodically detonate with horrific results. No one character is glorified or given the special treatment by Nolan, and thanks to his wise decision to interweave three different perspectives non-linearly together, each and every act of courage or bravery that he focuses on regardless of the immense stakes surrounding them, are treated with equal importance.
I am thankful I am not one of those people who had difficulty following the non-linear presentation of the film. While watching Dunkirk I felt that the non-linear style only amplified the suspense I was feeling, making me clench my fists tighter and my knuckles turn whiter. I enjoyed the sensation of being tossed around from one situation to the next, trying to guess what direction I’d be travelling in until the three interweaving perspectives collide toward films end, and the pieces come together perfectly like a puzzle.
The opening scene of soldiers including young Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) running down a street trying desperately to escape enemy gunfire before finding the mole of Dunkirk harbour where Commander Bolton observes the chaotic situation while soldiers like Tommy repeatedly try to escape the clutches of the beach over the course of a week, sets the tone of the movie immediately: frantic, intense, terrifying, sudden. We spend a day upon the Sea where Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter ( Tom Glynn-Carney) and their young deckhand George (Barry Keoghan) pluck soldiers like the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy, and yes, that’s what he’s called in the credits) and the RAF pilot Collins (Jack Lowden) from the depths of the icy waters. Then there’s an hour in the Air where Farrier (Tom Hardy) chases down German Messerschmitt planes in his Spitfire, halting most of their attempts to bomb boats.
I’m also thankful I heard every line of dialogue crystal clear, well enough to accurately identify Michael Caine as a radio communicator for the Royale Air Force. Admittedly, I heard the explosions and gunfire so loudly I jumped a few times when the overwhelming sound caught me off guard. Many continue to emphasize the need to see this film in 70mm IMAX, but I believe that regardless of what format you choose, it’s the experience of seeing Dunkirk theatrically that is necessary, and perhaps not so much the format, though it helps if the screen you’re looking at is bigger than most. As great as our surround sound has gotten for use in our homes, nothing will ever compare to seeing this film on the biggest screen you can find. When the sound of a Messerschmitt comes roaring from behind you, then almost sounds like it’s passed overhead before screaming way out in front of you, it genuinely feels like the closest thing to actually being there that any of us will ever encounter, and it’s absolutely terrifying. When soldiers are forced into the water, typically in fleeing from a sinking vessel, you can almost feel, smell, and taste the frigid waters. And when bombs are dropped and gunfire erupts, both at near deafening decibels, you can’t help but tense up as if one of the bombs or bullets might collide with you. It’s an immersive experience you really need to experience for yourself to believe and understand the full extent of.
The actual images of the film are less terrifying than the sounds of explosions and machine gun fire, in part because Nolan leaves the film devoid of blood beyond a few cuts and scrapes, a decision that had even myself second guessing how he might make this work. Once you understand that Dunkirk is a psychological war film that asks you to ponder what you’re watching rather than simply bombard you with heaps of exposition and gory carnage aplenty, you realize there really is no need for an R rating for this picture. Dunkirk is just an hour and 46 minutes long, lean and devoid of unnecessary fats comprised of character beats, long and frequent exposition dumps, and bloody war horrors, and all the better for it. This film didn’t need to be longer or shorter than it is.
I don’t have any qualms with Dunkirk at this juncture (the qualms others have encountered I don’t have), and while I love everything I saw in the film and greatly admire the ensemble cast’s performances, from Fionn Whitehead to Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, and others and the scenes they all inhabit, it was the perspective titled The Air I felt the deepest investment in. That’s not a knock against the other scenes, I just found The Air more hypnotic than anything else in the film, mostly due to the truly stunning cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema (seriously, every frame of this film is gorgeous and should be framed and hung in a museum), and Tom Hardy’s near silent performance (he has maybe 10 lines of dialogue in total). It didn’t occur to me until today that after a certain point in the film, Tom Hardy’s Farrier never speaks again. That Hardy conveys outwardly and through his eyes (because he wears yet another mask in Dunkirk) everything Farrier is thinking in the moment is in itself is quite the accomplishment, and only goes to show just how great an actor Hardy has become. That his scenes are the most riveting and awe inducing sweetens the deal.
The first thing my mind floats to when I think about Dunkirk is still the image of a man watching the fire grow on the beach, as clear as if it happened just a moment ago. The sky turning charcoal, the flames glowing against the sands and his face, his stern expression showing accomplishment and sacrifice in the same breath, the wind snapping against his skin and tossing his hair, his story coming to an end moments before the film does. I know I’ll see Dunkirk many more times, but if I only saw it just once, I’m willing to bet I’d remember that image for the rest of my life.