Eschewing the traditional beats of the modern war film, writer-director Christopher Nolan has created a cinematic vision depicting the terror of combat unlike any other – Dunkirk is pure movie bliss, a mesmerizing thriller so lean and focused, so void of bloated philosophy and overwrought action, that it quickens the pulse from start to finish, a massive feat of technical skill and filmmaking craft that demands the audience’s full attention, and reminds of just how powerful the theater-going experience can be when it is stripped to the essentials by a confident hand at the helm.
Those looking for story won’t find the standard narrative here, but the basics revolve around the need for the Allied forces to evacuate four hundred thousand soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in the north of France after they had been cut off during a pivotal moment in World War II. There they waited like sitting ducks for a rescue that seemed nearly impossible, surrounded by the German army and thwarted in a maritime escape by lurking U-boats and deadly bombers. With that setup firmly in place after a concise title card, Nolan is concerned with little else than utter absorption into the sights, sounds, and feel of what it takes to experience such an ordeal. Who these people are, were, or might be is never touched on via dialogue; actions speak louder than words, and the different paths men take toward survival and sacrifice elevate Dunkirk to a deafening roar.
Yes, there are a range of “personalities” throughout, but you’ll get no lengthy sob stories, background monologues, awkward soul baring, or inspirational speeches; the characters in Dunkirk reveal themselves through deed, their body language and subtle glances windows into their hearts. These men communicate with their eyes, and Nolan expects viewers to be able to follow along in suit, listening by watching, understanding by seeing. Compositions are exquisitely framed to deliver information, conveying both mood and story as efficiently as possible. One of the more obvious examples involves a crowd of troops staring at the empty sea, in line for transport that exists only in their hopes. These men are trapped, and as the camera pulls back it splits between two upright posts that act as visual jail bars, essentially imprisoning them. It’s a powerful image of helplessness that immediately elicits a tension that will only increase as things really start to go south.
With the components in place and activated, the bomb begins ticking. Nolan manages to sustain a level of suspense throughout that would make Hitchcock envious, deftly constructing peaks and valleys that never kill momentum, using three timelines – one taking place over the course of a week, one over a day, and another over an hour – to leap back and forth between, renewing thrust and providing rest where needed. Even quieter moments are not exempt from contributing to the buildup, often reminding us of the stakes or foreshadowing impending disaster. Anticipation is the key to suspense, and Dunkirk constantly doles out bits and pieces to suggest all that could possibly go wrong, just how tenuous the position really is. Pilots keep track of fuel levels by jotting numbers directly onto the dashboard, closed hatches below ship decks are eyed warily, and the wide open sky looms large over soldiers packed together on cramped piers. Few moments in thrillers have filled me with such dread as the first time the distant whine of a plane engine is heard approaching the beach, the faces of those in its path one by one looking upward, before diving desperately to the ground like a frightened school of fish evading a predator.
These seemingly small elements play a large part in Dunkirk‘s effectiveness; this is a sensory experience, where the sharp pop of a bullet both shocks and disorients, while the crashing waves offer taunting reminders of futility instead of soothing relaxation. The camera swoops above the epic ocean, weaving through airborne dogfights with a dizzying fluidity, shrinking its scope to the point of claustrophobia when plunging beneath the waterline. The marriage of sight and sound is both a sublime and essential union for this film to work, and though it would no doubt still dazzle as a silent, the absence of audio would deprive Dunkirk its glorious exclamation.
Everyone seems to be working in harmony, understanding their role in this production to perfection. War movies often offer actors the chance to chew the scenery, but here they blend into it, conveying character even behind thick flight goggles, mumbling off barely intelligible lines as if they know how unimportant the words really are when compared to the big picture. I couldn’t understand a good portion of what was said, but in no way did that lead to confusion or diminish my enjoyment; in fact, I would have been content with not a single utterance and still followed the plot precisely – such is the skill on display both behind and in front of the camera. The ensemble operates with natural conviction, earning a multitude of affecting moments spanned over a range of rich, sympathetic personalities.
Ultimately this is Nolan’s war, however, and his display of force will have many happily surrendering. Dunkirk wastes no time in jumping right into its hopeless situation, one where – much like the best thrillers – survival is a victory in itself. The terror is too real, the situation too dire for droning exposition, and the film refreshingly trusts that the audience will recognize all the facets at play without any hand-holding. It is a cinematic triumph that reinvigorates the the power of the big screen experience, and delivers an effective tale of survival. By choosing to show instead of tell, Nolan succeeds in pushing action movies forward by bringing them closer to their roots – the miracle rescue that movie lovers have been waiting for.
* The majority of this film was shot on IMAX 65mm film, and as such I highly recommend seeing it in this format, if possible