The genre of war films, in particular those which are set in World War II, has undergone quite the evolution of its own in the several decades it has been shown on the big screen. First there was the propaganda-geared war flicks produced during the timeframe of the war itself. Then came the post-war WWII films which tried to add any or all of the following: dramatic elements (“The Longest Day”, 1962), balanced characterization with the antagonist forces (“Tora! Tora! Tora!”, 1970), and moral complexities (“The Bridge on the River Kwai”, 1957). Then Steven Spielberg added bloody realism to the mix with his “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998. After that, WWII-set war films seem to have reached its pinnacle of development, until British auteur Christopher Nolan hit upon the idea that led to this year’s definitive war epic “Dunkirk”.
And what an idea it turned out to be. Perhaps taking from the criticism of his past works such as “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012) for being too dialogue-laden, Nolan has decided to skew in the opposite direction in developing “Dunkirk”: there would be minimal dialogue from the characters depicted on-screen, with the weight of the film’s narrative being carried by the establishing shots and action sequences instead. As a result the people depicted in the movie will have minimal characterization, instead being carried by the events of the plot like they are being washed away by a strong current. This happens to them figuratively (they are British soldiers trapped by the enemy with difficulties getting home) and literally (some scenes show them being trapped in sinking ships.
For those who need a refresher course in World War II history, “Dunkirk” takes place in the French port city of the same name in 1940, when British and French forces are surrounded there after being forced to flight by the unstoppable German blitzkrieg attack on France. The only chance they have is to be evacuated by ship from Dunkirk and cross the English Channel to England. With the port facilities destroyed by enemy attack, and the evacuees harassed by fighter strafing runs and bombing attacks on evacuation ships, the soldiers look to be in a pickle trying to get home.
To effectively cover all possible viewpoints of the events in Dunkirk, director Nolan decided to follow three storylines that interweave with each other in an ingeniously structured non-linear narrative. The main part is the plight of the soldiers in Dunkirk over the span of a week; other parts include the adventure of one sailing boat that was part of the flotilla of civilian volunteer vessels that bravely crossed the channel to help carry the troops home (spanning a day), and lastly the potentially suicidal mission of a squadron of three British Spitfires trying to fly air cover at Dunkirk with limited fuel flying there and back.
The focus character of the soldier arc is a British private appropriately named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead). The only survivor of his infantry section, he tries to find a way aboard one of the evacuation ships with the help of some fellow privates, the silent Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and the Scottish Highlander Alex (One Direction’s Harry Styles, proving he has acting potential). Overseeing the evacuation on the beach is Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). That’s pretty much all we know about their characters because characterization is not essential in “Dunkirk”.
As Nolan puts it in an interview, “The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it?” So they carry their roles in the film not by what they say, but in what they do (pretending to be stretcher-bearers to board a ship, stealing an abandoned trawler) and what happens to them (twice they get their ships sunk from under them). It is a magnificent method of motion picture storytelling all in all.
As for the other two arcs, the sea one follows boat owner Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) who sails his vessel the Moonstone to aid in the evacuation, accompanied by his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their teenaged boat-hand George (Barry Keoghan). The meat of their one-day arc is the conflict that erupts when they rescue a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy, his character is ever named) from a sunken ship, who then tries to seize control of the Moonstone upon learning that they are still headed for Dunkirk where he barely escaped. The third arc in the air, spanning only one hour in-universe, sees Spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) try their utmost to provide assistance to friendly ships by attacking the pursuing German planes, and the risk they face in running out of fuel before they can return.
These separate storylines end up crisscrossing one another in a way that might get viewers lost in some manner when watching “Dunkirk” for the first time. For instance, one “Air” scene shows Farrier and Collins flying over a sinking trawler in the middle of the English Channel with soldier evacuees. A few scenes later we see the same trawler on the Dunkirk beach, being commandeered by a Scottish Highlander section with Alex, Gibson and Tommy. And then later we see the same characters – though not all of them – being fished out of the water by Mr. Dawson’s boat. Even I was thrown off a bit by the jumping of viewpoints (1 week to 1 day to 1 hour, remember?), but if you’re just observant enough you can connect the dots.
Christopher Nolan definitely wet the extra mile to put some authenticity in the film’s production. World War II-era ships were found and dressed up to look like the same vessels present in the actual event. They even managed to round up several original civilian boats (many were kept preserved and restored over the decades) that participated in the evacuation. All these went into the location shooting at Dunkirk itself. And it would be set to music from longtime Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer, who composed a starkly distinctive soundtrack, all of it being variations of tunes set to the rhythm of a ticking stopwatch – the director’s own – to underscore the urgency underlying the whole incident.
In a way, Nolan may well have conceptualized his own new development to the creation of the war movie, in which the film encourages the audience to look past the conversation of the actors and instead pay attention to the grand events happening around them, and how they are symbolically and literally affected by it. There are some early reviews now calling “Dunkirk” Nolan’s best movie ever as well as one of the finest in the war genre yet. I still think it’s too early to tell, but these opinions may be on to something. Never has a movie showing only a wartime evacuation been so utterly epic.
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