Like all great storytellers, Christopher Nolan recognizes that the most human tales are about mankind’s endurance and powerful volition. He has made a career out of telling stories about the endurance of the human spirit. Though each of Nolan’s feature films has focused on the subject under a different lens, his work connects with such broad audiences across the world because he is able to tap into the most hopeful and willful part of each of us.
My love of cinema is, in great part, due to Christopher Nolan. Though my fascination with movies reaches back to watching Star Wars with my parents, the spark of artistic interest in me may have died without Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 – the first live-action feature movie I saw in theaters – and Nolan’s Batman Begins – the first movie I can recall causing me to reconsider moral and political subject matter. For me, the magic of movies is encapsulated in these two early experiences. Nolan has never failed to push narrative boundaries and reinvigorate my interest in cinematic storytelling since then, though. The same can be said for many of my friends. I hope the same can be said for you. Nolan makes it easy for audiences to suspend disbelief.
I sense that my preamble to the review has gone on long enough – I say all of this to emphasize that, while Nolan is not perfect, he has certainly tapped into something in terms of universal phenomena and overall cinematic experience. DUNKIRK is no different in this sensation: the movie is hardly about any one, individual character, yet it can feel extremely personal. Though I did find the movie difficult to emotionally connect with at first – the lack of clear protagonist being an obstacle to following emotional beats – the pictures in the film (and I did see it on film) produced a visceral effect that has lingered ever since the screening. The word “visceral” has, and undoubtedly will continue, to show up in reviews for the movie. DUNKIRK is a typical example of picture and sound overtaking any perceived importance of concrete character details. Unlike some of Nolan’s earlier pictures that attempt to make concrete, coherent sense out of abstract situations (e.g., Batman Begins, Inception, Interstellar), DUNKIRK follows in the vein of stories that attempt to connect to the abstract qualities of clearly detailed events (e.g., The Dark Knight, The Prestige). In this way, the “visceral” effect of DUNKIRK is achieved through picture and sound instead of more intelligible information about plot and character.
DUNKIRK features three separate plots that intersect under the framing of a single narrative. Nolan’s narrative “splitting” is what fractures some intelligible details – hurting the emotional beats of the movie and potential identification with characters, but redirecting audiences to the abstract qualities of the picture and immediate “gut reactions.” This effect was frustrating for me during the exposition of the film, but proved to ultimately be what made the narrative interesting and memorable. Sometimes storytelling experiments work; sometimes they don’t. This experiment worked well enough to continue to pique my interest after the film. The movie was at its best in conveying the horrors of war through its astonishing imagery. Matt Zoller Seitz of the Chicago Sun-Times captured the logics behind Nolan’s powerful pictures when he wrote: “If you were to make a list of every phobia you can think of, you’d have to tick off a lot of boxes after seeing this film. Fear of heights, fire, drowning, confined spaces, darkness, abandonment—you name it, it’s represented in cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s nightmarishly clear images.” In addition, though Mr. Zoller Seitz seemed to disagree in his review, I felt that Hans Zimmer’s overwhelming score adds to the terrifying effect of the movie. Yes, the images could stand on their own without the aid of music to interpret them, but that seems beside the point… DUNKIRK is designed to flood the senses in a sort of Theatre of Cruelty. Zimmer’s score, often guided by the sound of a ticking stop-watch, adds a feeling of pressure – of “running out of time” – to each moment and is irritating in an intentional and productive way. The united phobic visuals and purposefully grating score keep the viewer on edge throughout the experience.
In terms of plots, DUNKIRK’s attention is divided between three major groups: 1) British soldiers attempting to escape the beaches of Dunkirk and return to England, 2) the spitfire pilots protecting the waterways that the British soldiers were attempting to cross, and 3) the British civilian boat-owners who used their private vessels to rescue soldiers from the Dunkirk beach. For those who may be unfamiliar, Dunkirk is a WWII battle story that is less about victory or surrender as it is human capacity for survival (soldiers on the beaches) as well as self-sacrifice (the doomed pilots and selfless British civilians). The theme of endurance is captured most explicitly at the end of the movie when a rescued soldier is congratulated on his return to England. The soldier replied, “All we did was survive,” to which his congratulator responded, “That’s enough.”
Although it is difficult to mark standout performances, because the movie is, again, not about individual characters, many supporting performances provided gravitas to lend weight to the circumstances of scenes. Notably, Mark Rylance’s kind and determined Mr. Dawson, Cillian Murphy’s frighteningly shell-shocked Shivering Soldier, and Tom Hardy’s confident pilot – Farrier – make their scenes more affective via their mastery of nonverbal performance. (Much like The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy does most of his work through a mask, relying on eye-movement to capture the emotional shades of his character.)
DUNKIRK will likely stand the test of time because debate over the aesthetic aspirations of the movie will reveal the taste and interest of each evaluator. Not everyone will like DUNKIRK. But seeing it, determining your feelings about it, and putting those feelings into words, will say something about who you are as a storyteller. (And, to be clear, there is a storyteller in all of us.) My personal feeling is that, while I wish there were clearer emotional beats and focus at times, I will still take Nolan’s immersive sensations and haunting, phobic pictures over most other movies any day…