A technical masterpiece, Dunkirk allows the audience to experience war in a way unlike any film before it. Spend the money to see it in IMAX – the sound alone is worth it.
The Good: The visuals, sound, editing, scale, scope, and Tom Hardy’s eyeball.
You ever see Saving Private Ryan? If not, go watch that. It’s most famous scene by far is the opening, in which Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his 2nd Ranger Battalion help storm Omaha Beach on D-Day. The scene is incredibly personal, primarily following Hanks as he crawls up a beach of sand and bodies. The violence is stark and unforgiving. The camera is unstable, and partnered with the sound mixing, pushes the audience into the the shell shock and numbness felt Hanks’ character. It was novel filmmaking, and changed the genre.
If Saving Private Ryan is about putting you in the mind of the soldier, then Dunkirk is about putting you in the fabric of the battle at this moment in history. It doesn’t particularly care about its characters – they have personalities, but they are both limited and muted. Far more importantly is what role they play, their contribution or detriment.
The camera and sound work to serve this vision in perfect unison, just as Spielberg’s did for his film. Of particular note is any scene featuring Tom Hardy as an RAF pilot. The camera is often put in POV, so that the audience is the pilot. The sound is loud, the roar of the engines and the rattle of the seat and controls heard in every moment. The only character reaction we see is Hardy’s eyes, contracting or expanding.
The rest of the film follows suit. The opening shows a group of soldiers wandering the empty French streets. Sniper fire rings out, piercingly, incredibly loud. Watching in IMAX enhances the experience; the instinct to duck or jump or at least plug one’s ears is undeniable. There is no escape from these moments, from you or the character. The camera stays tight on their backs (on the enemy plane for Hardy), tunneled to their movements.
The one exception to this is Mark Rylance’s character, a civilian boat captain who sails across the English Channel as part of Operation Dynamo: the plan to save the 400,000 soldiers stranded at Dunkirk. He speaks more than every other character combined. Yet even then, the story is more focused on what actions he takes in reaction to events unfolding, than on who he is.
The result of all this perfectly fine tuned work is a war-film unlike any that have graced the screen. You are in the plane, or the boat, or on the beach. You rumble and cower and feel a tightness of breath as a torpedo hits the destroyer where the camera – and Harry styles- are currently drowning. You don’t connect with the characters, but rather their actions, their vessels, the war surrounding them. It’s the closest you’ll get to time travel.
The Bad: There’s no time to care – but maybe that’s the point.
The drawback to this complete separation of character is that you don’t really care about what happens to them. An example: at one point, you spend about a full minute and a half in the cockpit of a sinking plane, the camera pointed directly at the pilot’s submerging torso and face. It’s highly unlikely that you care about him; we’ve had almost no time to get to know the character. There’s no villain to hate in comparison, so there really is no way of relating to him.
Instead, you care that he is on the precipice of drowning because you are in the cockpit. His constant attempts to escape are drawn out, seemingly hopeless, and you feel that because you are kept there. The camera does not escape. You do not escape. It is going to drown. You are going to drown.
But this might not be a “bad.” It’s simply a different way to portray a war. Here, you are meant to experience the action, and largely the feeling of pointlessness experienced not by the individual, but by the whole. In Ryan, you don’t care what the outcome of the storming of Omaha Beach is, because what’s important is that Hanks makes it up the hill. In Dunkirk, you don’t care if a boy dies or if a man drowns or is shot, because what’s important is that the boats make it to the shore.
The Ugly: Seeing a black soldier in a WW2 is remarkable – and it shouldn’t be.
Completely unrelated to anything else in the story: at one point a French unit is trying to get on an escape ferry, and among them are at least 3 black soldiers. And I noticed that. It pulled me out of the moment, because it was so surprising.
And it really shouldn’t be. 125,000 African Americans served overseas during WWII. France had 200,000 black soldiers, around 9% of its army. Most of these were volunteers (the level to which they volunteered is debated) from their colonial holdings. Indian soldiers part of the British army fought in all theaters of the war, including France.
This isn’t a kudos to Nolan for including this; that should be a no brainer at this point. But it should definitely be done more: People of Color served in every theater, and in every branch of the military. It’s time to start portraying reality.
“Acclaimed auteur Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight) wrote and directed this historical thriller about the Dunkirk evacuation during the early days of World War II. When 400,000 British and Allied troops end up trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, following a catastrophic defeat, a number of civilian boats set out to rescue them before they are decimated by the approaching Nazi forces. Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowdeln, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy star.” – Jack Rodgers, Rovi