/ Reviews

Dunkirk: Innovative structure elevates visceral anecdotes to a universal experience

Dunkirk is the zenith of Christopher Nolan's filmmaking career, delivering an aural and visual experience of private yet universal perils.

War is the film genre that almost every great directors—Renoir, Kurosawa, Lean, Kubrick, Coppola, De Palma, Spielberg, and Woo, amongst others—put their hands on at least once. So Christopher Nolan, who cemented his position as one of the few prestigious directors working in a fair partnership with Hollywood studios, chose the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk for his latest project. This is his first historical piece, and he adamantly portrayed it with the highest possible level of accuracy. We occasionally see a black soldier or a female nurse, but the reality of World War II in the European theater is about white males.

Dunkirk, as a rare war film without the Americans,  focuses on the British people in the port city of Dunkirk. After the Ardennes debacle in 1940, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Viscount Gort, ordered an evacuation of the BEF soldiers, who were separated with their homeland by 26 miles of the English Channel. By zooming in on certain soldiers and civilians, Nolan delineates how this urgent situation became a historic lesson of heartache, resilience, and challenges to individual ethics.

Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, and Fionn Whitehead

Watching the trailers back then, I wondered why Dunkirk was so clean. And only by experiencing it, I realize Nolan chose that look because this film isn’t chaotic. Contrary to the jarring crossfire amidst the battlefield in Saving Private Ryan or the moral deterioration in Idi i Smotri, the sense of action and direction for the characters is clear—to go home, which they “can practically see” from Dunkirk. Thus, many significant details of the evacuation were excluded, lest they distract the audience and stray far from Nolan’s inventive scope.

This creative decision answers other questions about what’s not in the film. Because Nolan wanted to channel emotional authenticity through one sole scope—people leaving Dunkirk, the inclusion of the French rearguard and war politics from both sides is a risky digression. Likewise, the Nazis are portrayed as an invisible enemy, materialized as the tangible threats (i.e. gunshots from afar and airplanes overhead). Just as The Dark Knight movies aren’t superhero films but actually crime/drama films using superhero properties, Dunkirk is less of a war film than a drama/thriller put in the context of war. Just as Get Out can’t shift its framework to any sort of racism other than the one targeting at African-American communities, Dunkirk won’t follow anyone other than the people on their journey home—the rescuers, too, will eventually leave Dunkirk for the shore of England. Made with Nolan’s unhindered purpose, it’s not another detailed account of the event. Thus, it’s his shortest feature, except for his debut work Following.

James D’Arcy and Kenneth Branagh

From his impressive collaboration with Nolan on Interstellar, Hoyte van Hoytema (Let The Right One In, Her) came back to manipulate the Hollywood orange-teal combo. The color palette is desaturated in hopelessly delayed situations, or highly saturated when the human spirit rises above their predicaments. Captured in his IMAX cameras, the sceneries expand in height, width, and depth. Audiences and characters unwittingly become minuscule under the vast negative space. In addition, Nolan insisted on the PC-13 rating. Unlike gory imageries taking viewers out of the moment, this limitation sustains a coherent string of unease along with the plot. As usual, the director attended to minimal details, such as using cardboard stand-ins for soldiers—because we all know how Nolan and the producer (also his wife) Emma Thomas prefer practical effects. Violence was executed in a bloodless fashion to give the blockbuster spectacle a feeling of visceral realism. No typical explosion happens in Dunkirk. You bomb the beach, sand blows up. You shoot the aircraft, smoke and sparks come out. There was no unnecessary flame.

Hoyte van HOytema, Christopher Nolan, and Fionne Whitehead

With Dunkirk, Nolan continues to examine time—about how we perceive it and how it controls us. Utilizing the Shepard Tone, Hans Zimmer infused his intense score with the sound of a ticking clock to manifest the psychological pressure on characters. The thundering bombardments and the whizzing planes right above the soldiers encapsulate the existential plight: hapless soldiers want to escape the sand of time while the uncaring sand of Dunkirk holds them back. Time, impervious and unrestricted, warps and wraps tiny humans in its figurative palm.

Dunkirk’s best technical intrigue lies in its narrative structure, which feels like a large-scale, time-distorting realization of the Kuleshov effect. By cross-cutting between seemingly disjointed points of view, Nolan crafted the unique sum of singular parts—the accumulative virtue of perspectives, which are The Mole, The Sea, and The Sky. Each of them tracks its central characters and stays on its course before dramatically crashing into one another. Acutely, the choices made in those separate arcs are valuable points of reference for a satisfying denouement.

Their operating windows vary from a whole week to one day to one hour, befitting the characters’ experience in specific durations. In one desperate week of The Mole (its meaning is similar to the breakwater but there’s also a wordplay here), BEF soldiers retreat to the seaside and wait for the deliverance away from Germany’s upcoming attacks. In one precarious day of The Sea, leisure ships—in their small sizes and scattered departures—cut through the overwhelming winds and waves of the English channel. Even more so, in one urgent hour of The Sky, the Spitfires from Royal Air Force engage in their dogfights to take down German bombers and fighters.

Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson

If that sounds complicated on paper, Nolan made sure the audience can comprehend this nonlinear narrative by upholding a clear perceptiveness to the passage of time. With the BEF soldiers, the change of night and day follows the soldiers through the week. With the civilians, the moving sun keeps us informed. With the flyboys, the countdown of one pilot’s remaining fuel holds us on the same unsafe page with him. This situation accents the matter-of-fact fear, which defines humans in war.

About the lack of backstories, I find the criticisms silly. Dunkirk would be convoluted and confounding if Nolan detailed his characters with backgrounds. Though their journeys are at the focus, each person is just an everyman—similar to hundreds of thousands of others—who only try to live up to both duty and well-being. Most of their names are not even mentioned; Nolan’s frequent collaborator Cillian Murphy is credited as The Shivering Soldier, who can be headstrong with the procedure, but the tragic outcome crushes his soul to trembling pieces. Tear-jerking stories about loving parents (or criminal past, or cowardly behaviors) don’t matter in comparison with the wish to put their feet on England. Backstories don’t divide them, only the purpose unite them.

Tom Glynn-Carney and Cillian Murphy

For this project, Noland cast the perfect assembly. Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles gave their characters the vulnerable callowness of young draftees, who are not stereotypical grown men with muscles and masculine jawline. Although they both emitted the sympathetic anxiety in many deadly circumstances, Styles specifically gave an honest-to-god performance to sell the mixed feelings of self-preservation and responsibility in the end. As Commander Bolton, Kenneth Branagh is a reliable presence of accountability, but the better veteran actor here is Mark Rylance. The Oscar-winner played Mr. Dawson, a normal British on his yacht with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and assistant George (Barry Keoghan). They, amongst other Dunkirk Little Ships, rush to France without knowing the dangers from the German Air Force (Luftwaffe). While Mr. Dawnson represents the patriotic support, which the civilians never feel they give enough to the frontline, Peter and George show the enthusiasm of the Dunkirk spirit (especially George, who isn’t compelled to go but still gives a hand). In the sky, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) are the two remaining RAF pilots of a three-man squadron (let’s find the voice cameo of Michael Caine somewhere). They show devotion to protecting ships despite being outnumbered in the largest and most exposed territory. Of course, Hardy got his lower face covered again, but his brow and eyeballs tell a heartbreaking story of persistence, bravery, and self-inflicted guilt.

Tom Hardy as RAF pilot Farrier

The virtuosic Nolan, proving his perfectionist dedication to the vitality of cinema, simultaneously approached the multifold event from different angles—because that’s what war movies lack. Characters are not only caught up in the struggle for survival but also in the severe suffering of shame. Aside from time, their greatest foe is the uncertainty when facing death. Dunkirk is the zenith of Nolan’s filmmaking career, delivering an aural and visual experience to immerse viewers in private yet universal accounts of peril.