For the American movie audience, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk will come across as an educational experience because this historic event from 1940, albeit being one of the major chapters of the British WWII history books, is hardly talked about in America.
Nolan, the man known for his quirky and yet intelligible signature style of creating temporal melee of events, like in movies such as “Memento”, “Inception” and “Interstellar”, doesn’t fail to stamp his style on Dunkirk as well. His signature style involves telling a story through multiple timelines, sometimes overlapping through his tense screenplay , but eventually synchronizing them all in the only way he can. His audience often walk out of the movie halls thinking or analyzing what just happened, but with Dunkirk he manages to achieve much more. The audience walk out with a sense of trauma relief. A trauma caused by some intense and realistic 107 minutes of being part of the largest evacuations in WWII history and surviving some ruthless enemy attacks.
Dunkirk starts off in quite a fiercely animated way, with a group of six soldiers trying to chart their way out to the sea from the middle of the town, where they were hiding when flyers from the Nazi Germany had been dropped — Paper flyers giving them a dire warning of having no way out. That intensity that sets in the first minute is not lost almost till the end credits. In fact, it only escalates during various sequences in between. The overall cinematic experience is beyond anything you may have seen in war movies. Hoyte Van Hoytema with his vivid shots, Hans Zimmer’s tension filled background score, the editor, the sound engineers, etc. who managed to keep that immersive experience till the end deserve credit for aiding Nolan with creating a masterpiece of cinema.
Having not been warned prior to watching the movie, it took me a few minutes to understand the three timelines cryptically set by Nolan at the very beginning. Not that I am spoiling a surprise here, but it may help you watch the movie and enjoy the experience if you knew it ahead of time. With these three timelines being editorially intertwined in a skillful way, Nolan still manages to tell three different stories (and their backstories) with a common meeting point.
Land, Sea and Sky — Those are the three different timelines.
With a naval commander on land, who is coordinating the evacuation through minimal resources, we get to experience the story (and the events during that one week timeline) through a fumbled escape route taken by Tommy, a thin soldier, whose emotions are as raw as what Nolan wants us to experience, nothing too personal and nothing too painful, but simply as raw human instinct for survival.
On sea, the story and the timeline of that one day unfolds through the experiences of a private small boat owner (played by one of my favorite actors Mark Rylance), who is being called for this mission, along with a civilian fleet ranging from tug boats to steamers and ferries, all sailing through the English Channel, to help evacuate as many English soldiers as they can from Dunkirk. Mark Rylance’s character, Mr. Dawson and his son end up taking a shy lad, who happens to be the son’s friend in their mission. As they navigate the waters, with Luftwaffes (german fighter planes) dominating the skies and with other troubled English ships on the water, they eventually manage to rescue more than what they may have set out to sail for.
Meanwhile, on air, we have three Royal Air Force pilots taking off in their Spitfires to give cover for the fleet and also in an attempt to shoot down the Luftwaffes. As they battle the bobbing clouds and blinding sun, they need to somehow survive the relentless attacks from the enemy planes. We get to experience the story and this timeline of an hour unfold through Tom Hardy, piloting the only plane that eventually makes it to Dunkirk successfully. As he walks out of his plane, he shoots it in order to avoid it being captured by the Germans. That sight signifies the sentiment of the war.
Christopher Nolan’s brilliance for juggling different timelines and his amazing ability to show them all through a vision that can only be described as elastic (made into reality with the help of Lee Smith, the editor), makes this movie work big time. The intensity and the rawness captured through a wide angle 70mm format and Hans Zimmer’s brilliant score with a sustaining hum of a metallic noise throughout the film along with intermittent string outbursts to ratchet up tension and anxiety pretty much take you to the middle of the combat zone.
Nolan manages to avoid showing gore which we are so used to in war films, and instead chooses to show the rawness of the action as it unfolds. We don’t get to see wounds, we don’t witness blood gushing, we don’t get to see zoomed broken legs or arms, and we certainly don’t see too many traumatic injury filled faces. Nolan doesn’t hide the reality of these combat scenes, so you do feel all of the above in passing. What’s more, Nolan doesn’t even identify the enemy here as Nazi Germany, as if letting us know, there was no point in telling us the obvious. Even Churchill, an integral figure behind the evacuation is never more than a passing reference who gains relevance (in the movie) only through a newspaper article which Tommy reads after he gets home, towards the end.
Wars may not be won by evacuations, but this evacuation was truly a victory for the human will to survive. Dunkirk is an experiential movie that leaves you with an impact that very few war movies manage to achieve.
Bring on the Oscars!!