Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk, is rated PG-13 for “intense war experience and some language.” “Intense war experience?” I puzzled over the meaning of this. Usually the rating would say “intense war violence” or something like that, but “intense war experience” is a phrase I don’t remember seeing in a movie rating before.
Image: Warner Bros.
The film tells the story of the Dunkirk evacuation, which took place in Dunkirk, France in 1940, early in World War II. 400,000 Allied troops were cut off by the Germans, and were becoming surrounded. The movie wastes little time in establishing this, and we learn early in the movie from a British Naval Commander played by Kenneth Branagh that the large British ships were too big to come in to the beach where the troops were because the water was too shallow, and they didn’t have enough smaller boats to ferry troops to the bigger ships. The soldiers were stuck on the beach, while being strafed and bombed by German fighter planes as the German army drew ever closer. A dire situation, to say the least, until a flotilla of hundreds of civilian boats came to the rescue. They ended up successfully evacuating more than 300,000 of the 400,000 troops.
Nolan’s film of this event is an unconventional war movie. There are no discussions between the troops about their lives away from the war, no scenes of generals in war rooms discussing strategy, most of the characters aren’t named, and there are long stretches with little to no dialogue. And yet, Nolan has made an honest-to-God masterpiece and released it right smack in the middle of summer movie season. You’ve got to admire his chutzpah.
Nolan has a reputation for doing things for real in his movies (like the famous semi-truck flip in The Dark Knight), and this is on full display with Dunkirk. He used real boats, real planes, and thousands of extras. He filmed the movie in Dunkirk, where the actual events took place, and even used some of the actual boats that were used during the evacuation. The sense of realism pervades the film. There is nothing to distract the viewer from the desperate situation these men were in, and everything in the film feels completely genuine.
The film is composed of three interlocking segments, all of which take place over different periods of time. Nolan loves to play with the concept of time in his movies (Memento, Inception, Interstellar etc.) and he does so again here. The first segment is The Mole, which takes place over the course of one week. The word “mole” refers to the long pier stretching into Dunkirk harbor, not to a small creature that burrows around in your yard. The second segment is The Sea, which occurs over the course of one day, and the third is The Air, which transpires over one hour. These three segments intersect at various points during the movie, and Nolan doesn’t hold the viewer’s hand, meaning that it is necessary to pay close attention, since the intersections between the three segments aren’t always spelled out clearly.
I don’t want that to sound like a complaint. I felt like I had a good grasp of what was going on, but there are details that can be missed if you’re not paying enough attention. Nolan respects his audience enough to let them figure things out on their own, and doesn’t bother to spell everything out for them. The three segments take place on land, sea, and air, and together they give the viewer a complete picture of the event from all angles.
Nolan said that he studied silent films to learn how they used details to convey suspense and emotion without relying on dialogue, and there is little dialogue for much of the film. And yet, it’s the most harrowingly intense film I’ve seen all year. It has a brisk running time of 106 minutes, which makes it a solid hour shorter than Nolan’s previous films Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises. It’s the perfect length. Everything in the movie feels important and has a reason for being there. There’s no fat, the movie never drags, it’s straight-up suspense for the entire running time.
In many ways Dunkirk is more of a survival story than a war film, closer to The Grey than Saving Private Ryan. Nolan keeps the Germans off-screen, we never see the enemy directly for the entire movie. It’s also akin to a disaster movie, in which people are menaced by unstoppable forces of nature they are helpless to stop. The Germans may not be seen directly, but their presence is constantly felt. No sound I’ve heard in a movie theater this year has terrified me more than the sound of incoming German fighter planes. I wasn’t breathing for most of the movie, and one scene late in the film was so unbelievably intense that I was close to hyperventilating. If you have a phobia of drowning or are claustrophobic (or both), you seriously might not want to see this movie to avoid having a panic attack. That’s how intense it is.
In addition to Sir Kenneth Branagh, the movie’s cast includes Nolan mainstays Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, as well as Oscar-winner Mark Rylance. It also features a large cast of mostly unknown actors, several of which are making their big screen debuts. One of these is Harry Styles, member of the boy-band One Direction. This isn’t stunt-casting, though. Nolan was unaware that Styles that was already famous when he cast in the film. Nolan cast Styles because he felt Styles was right for the role he cast him in. And while I’m not a One Direction fan, Styles is good in the film, as are all the other actors. There’s nothing flashy about any of the people in this movie, they’re all normal people thrust into an impossible, desperate situation. It’s a very human story, and the film never loses track of the humanity of those involved. They’re scared and vulnerable, and we care about them despite knowing little about them.
Image: Warner Bros.
The movie looks amazing. The real planes and ships Nolan used make the film feel incredibly authentic, so much so that it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a movie most of the time. The aerial photography during the dogfight scenes is stunning to watch. Much of the movie was filmed using IMAX cameras, and the results are breathtaking. Christopher Nolan is one of the best directors working today, and his talents are on full display with Dunkirk. If this movie doesn’t finally earn Nolan his long-deserved first Oscar for Best Director, as well as a whole host of other awards, I’ll eat my hat. The score from frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer is also excellent, and helps ratchet up the already considerable tension to nearly unbearable levels.
Dunkirk is not a mindless summer movie. Christopher Nolan doesn’t make those. It’s a challenging film that requires a certain degree of patience, and it’s not a movie that I would call “fun,” but it is a damn good movie nonetheless, easily one of the best of the year, and it is a movie that holds many rewards for the attentive viewer. It is indeed an intense war experience, and will stay with you long after you see it. It’s a visceral, terrifying film, and I can’t wait to see it again.
Next on the Summer Movie Watchlist is Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron as a professional badass, and directed by John Wick co-director and veteran stuntman David Leitch. Will she be Jane Wick, or perhaps Jane Bond? Tune in next week to find out!