“All we did was survive.”
By land, by sea, and by air, the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk, France just across the water to England was a harrowing week at war. As the Germans forced the English, French, and Belgian troops to the beaches, the Allies plotted how to escape across the sea while holding the Germans off. Christopher Nolan, who directed and wrote Dunkirk, captures that week on the beach from three different narrative points-of-view, cutting back and forth across time and space to form an intriguingly disorienting checkerboard of a story.
Dunkirk is an exciting departure for Nolan. His superheroes, for once, are the men who save their fellow soldier, the small boat runners who head into the combat zone, the everyday fighters keeping faith that they will return home. We’re on high alert the moment we see the beach, with thousands of troops lined up across the sand and along the Mole. Hans Zimmer’s musical score is a metronomic pulse carrying from scene to scene, like a ticking watch, uniting soldiers and civilians in their separate struggles to survive the hours at Dunkirk.
Nolan’s not a director for a conventional war movie, and his nonlinear triptych of interwoven plotlines pays off. The evacuation efforts were more than any one man’s; though we have one main protagonist leading us through the events (the young soldier Tommy, played by Fionn Whitehead), Nolan eschews most exposition to surround us with his vision of the battle: an eerie union of the unsettlingly placid beach imagery rocked by the loud and terrifying soundtrack of war.
We know little about the men fighting, other than their desire to make it out. Mark Rylance’s character Mr. Dawson, for instance, gets some backstory; one of his sons was killed weeks into World War II, and his other son is joining him on their small-boat mission to rescue soldiers stranded at sea. The cast—it’s a good one—all fit neatly into the larger puzzle, even Harry Styles (who I didn’t recognize on screen). Cillian Murphy may be the most affecting as a shell-shocked soldier in conflict with his rescuers over returning to the battle zone.
The movie delights in its craft. The effects land because (as Nolan has attested in interviews) there’s minimal CGI involved. Actual planes flew high above the actors; fire broke out on the surface of the water. Cinematographer Hoyte Von Hoytema’s camerawork wows on the big screen, from the drab, chilly wasteland of the beach mid-week to soaring cockpit views of the fighter pilots in mid-air, beautifully choreographed.
Dunkirk is Nolan at his most controlled, which—funny enough—allows him to be his most expansive and compassionate. His British restraint serves him well; the movie feels elegant and thoughtful, without glamorizing or sentimentalizing the many who died before reaching home. Even the movie’s foggier moments (muffled dialogue, occasionally confusing shifts from scene to scene) play into its immediacy. There’s a relentlessness from the first frame until the movie’s resolution. This one hits close because the action feels so visceral, the danger omnipresent even in the chilling quiet of waiting on the beach. To live? To die? These men couldn’t have known how it would turn out.
Thanks to living in a major city, Dunkirk is playing in Boston in regular 35 MM, 70 MM, and 70 MM IMAX. I’ve been told the IMAX is the most immersive, but I chose the lower ticket price of the 70 MM showing.
Only two other American films were released in 70 MM this decade: Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Seeing Dunkirk in 70 MM meant watching the movie on actual film, instead of the digital projection we’re accustomed to. Film shakes more than a stable digital image; at times, I could see the flicker. I’m not sure if the experience ends up being more or less, but film lent itself to Dunkirk’s aesthetic of muted nostalgia. 70 MM allows for more detail, but everything was also softer, the color palette cool instead of bold, like the film reels themselves had been a little weathered in the beach winds and the grain of the sand.