I’m not sure I need to spoiler tag an account of a historical event from over 75 years ago, but if you want to remain completely surprised, consider this your spoiler warning.
So full disclosure–I’m terrible at history. Anything before 1990 is abstracted to me and what I imagine is the Land Before Time dinosaur stuff happening before we jump straight into The Great Gatsby and Newsies era stuff, then finally to the current times. But trust me, I actually did research Dunkirk for this review.
“The Miracle of Dunkirk,” as it’s referred to by the Brits, was an Allied retreat from the french coastal city of Dunkirk in 1940. The Nazis had herded soldiers across the rest of Europe and finally cornered them in northwest France. They could’ve kept pressing and wiped them out, but for reasons still debated by historians today, the German forces let up–possibilities include Hitler’s lack of military leadership, the unfavorable, hilly terrain surrounding the town of Dunkirk itself, or the fact that the Nazis had spread themselves too thin already and wanted to preserve morale and resources for the long-run.
The British military were so strapped for resources that they had to call upon civilian commercial and recreational boat owners to help ferry Allied soldiers across the channel before they were all wiped out by the German air force. By the end of the 8 day effort, 800 boats had rescued close to 340,000 soldiers. Those soldiers could live to fight later in the war. Had this retreat not happened, Germany could possibly have overrun all of Europe and WWII might have ended before American involvement. So it’s a pretty critical juncture in the war’s events.
Circling back from the history lesson: this movie was pure artisan masterclass. It was a Black Hawk Down / Saving Private Ryan war movie meets Back to the Future / Pulp Fiction / Seinfeld style storytelling in the sense that it plays with chronology by way of multiple interweaving plot lines that converge at the end. It’s central themes of human resolve, fortitude, and constitution somehow work out at the end, impossibly evoking inspirational and hopeful fuzzies once the credits rolled.
It’s a long walk to get to the good feelings though because if I can be reductive for a moment and describe the film in one word: it’s stressful. Not like 30 extra minutes in a traffic jam on your evening commute, or trying to sleep-train a baby, but from the first gunshot that rings out a minute in, every moment throughout is overflowing with persistent, unabating tension. I’d like to credit a lot of it to consummate sound design embellished by Hans Zimmer’s expert score. It’s happened in Nolan films before–the ticking and tocking is relentless and the ominous humming and ringing doesn’t stop save two scenes towards the very end. The sound is mixed exceptionally loud. A deliberate decision, I’m sure, to convey the deafening sounds of war. A minor complaint I have is that it even makes the dialogue hard to understand. I probably missed 15% of the dialogue and I’ll be looking forward to a subtitled version upon its home release.
But that’s not a huge sore spot for me since dialogue is considerably sparse through the entirety of the film, placing a tacit emphasis on the visual narration. For most movies, I could care less about the frilly 3 dimensions or extraneous gimmicks; however, I caught an advance screening in 70mm and cannot recommend enough to see this movie in the absolute largest format you possibly can. IMAX 70mm would be ideal, but since only 31 locations showing it that way, try to at least catch a 70mm showing. I noticed after seeing a trailer on TV after my viewing that this is a film that enormously benefits from being viewed on film. The trailer was digital, making it clean, crisp, and vibrant–that’s not ideal when trying to project the unromanticized, grittiness of war. The quality of seeing it on film gives it a certain authenticity and weight that places it squarely at home in 1940 like an untouched, found time capsule. Large, sweeping shots of these grandiose set pieces shouldn’t be diluted in a theater spectacle. Save that for when you’re watching this again in your living room.
Technical feats aside, some of the creative directions were also distinctly unique. It’s important to note what was shown on-screen, but certain omissions also empower the storytelling. This is the first WWII movie to my knowledge where not an iota of a swastika, the word “nazi,” or even an enemy soldier is shown or uttered. The film simply refers to them as “the enemy” and instead focuses on the strife of the retreating soldiers.
I’m waffling on discerning the purpose of this decision and whether it was to create a faceless boogieman that books and good horror movies tend to accomplish: leave it off panel and let the viewer’s imagination do the legwork and imply the fear. It could also just be that Nolan didn’t want to waste any mental or emotional real estate on the other half that might’ve detracted from the can’t-blink nature of his expert anxiety-building.
I’ll wrap this up with one final thought. I’ve heard some initial critiques about people saying the characters weren’t fleshed out enough to really be vested in. I’d concede that they are thinly developed, but what else can you expect from a 106 minute film? I actually appreciated the brevity and would argue the opposite–in the military, soldiers have to be expendable by nature. Single-serving, micro-gears and mini cogs serving a larger purpose and meaningful mission.
The brilliance of this story lies in the fact that it takes vignettes of three point-of-views, but it could easily have shown the perspective of literally any other fishing boat, any other soldier, and they are still modular, interchangeable vertical slices that wouldn’t detract from the central theme–the truly unbreakable will and tenacity of humankind against overwhelming odds and circumstances. It’s a hard diagonal from other war movies that glorify heroic acts of individual soldiers like Hacksaw Ridge; Dunkirk instead celebrates the merits of de-emphasizing the individual to laud collectivism and injects hope into putting aside our differences to move forward–something we could especially use in 2017.