VOD Review: Dunkirk
!Bwommmmm! Dunkirk is an excellent war movie !bwommmmm! by Christopher Nolan, with an exceptional score by Hans !bwommmmmm! Zimmer. The slow burn will leave you emotionally spent. !Bwommmm!
It seems every year someone trots out a war movie for the sole purpose of getting an Oscar nomination. When Dunkirk first came out, I was like “Gee, I guess Nolan really wants an Oscar this year. Pass.”. Having finally watched Dunkirk, I have to admit that I missed out on a must see theater experience. Dunkirk subverts the “Modern War Movie™” formula made famous by Saving Private Ryan without feeling gimmicky or antagonistic to the genre. It does use some gimmicks, but none of them feel like the focus; they are all in service to the movie. Now that the movie is out on streaming/dvd, I highly recommend a watch. Just make sure you have a really nice sound system to recapture some of the big screen experience!
On May 27th, the order was given for the evacuation of Allied Forces from the beaches of Dunkirk, France. Surrounded on land by the German army, constantly harassed by the Luftwaffe in the air and U-boats at sea; roughly 400,000 men gathered at the beach to await their fate. One week later, 330,000 were greeted as heroes upon their return to Great Britain.
Dunkirk is the story of that week long evacuation.
Dunkirk is told in three interwoven narratives. The perspective of the soldiers trapped on the beach mainly follows Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British soldier desperately trying to sneak onto anything that floats. The rescue flotilla of private English vessels is showcased by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a yacht owner that heads to Dunkirk with his son and a local boy to try and rescue as many people as they can. Finally, we get Tom Hardy as an RAF fighter pilot running escort for the evacuation.
The intersection of these tales provides the “gimmick” to Dunkirk: not everything is happening concurrently, and time shifts forwards and backwards as the entire picture is eventually made clear. I wouldn’t call it a trick or a twist; each of the three perspectives tell you right at the jump how far back in the week they start. But after that small “spoiler alert” the movie plays it straight until about the halfway mark, where you start noticing that something that happened to Tommy ten minutes ago is now weaving into the RAF story, only to finally get a conclusion half an hour later from Mr. Dawson’s perspective.
I’m split on this narrative decision. Like a said, I didn’t feel like it was supposed to be a mind-blowing twist, and it allows the film to always have something to do. The first six days leading up to the rescue operation would be tedious; just zooming into the last hour of the evacuation with Tom Hardy would be a rush job. As it stands I liked the balance, but I also felt like there was a hint of a “this is my Inception style wrinkle, be impressed!” flare to it. But you’re mileage may vary; maybe I’m just a little irked that I didn’t get it until the second time the movie made it clear that it wasn’t moving from A to B linearly.
Christopher Nolan always brings a new idea to his cinematography; the same can be said about Hans Zimmer. While I joke on Zimmer for his oft-copied “Inception-Bwommm”, his soundtracks are always tailor made for the intended mood of the film. In Inception, he was using horns to disorient and jar you: it worked for a movie all about messing with a person’s reality. Here, he uses a trick called Shephard Tones to ratchet up a slow, smoldering dread.
This is a story about men awaiting their doom. The rescue was always an extreme long-shot; that it worked was seen by the British as a sign that God was on their side. As these men move towards their date with destiny, the tension inches along like a knife getting closer to your eye at a glacial pace. The Shephard Tone makes the soundtrack sound like it’s slowly ramping up in sound and frequency when in fact no such thing is happening. As someone with an Anxiety disorder, I noticed what the music was doing to me, but it never got bad enough to trigger me. That’s pretty much this film in a nutshell: a sauntering dread that never gallops into flat-out terror.
Hanging on in Quiet Desperation is the English Way
The non-linear pacing combines with the slow-burn to create a movie that is distinctly different than the “Oscar-Worthy War Movie” we get yearly. The Saving Private Ryan equation is minutes of quiet character development punctuated by seconds of terror and violence. In contrast, here we get a slow tension that keeps you on the edge of your seat despite there not being a whole lot of action. This wasn’t Normandy. It was a bloodied army trying to sneak back home, with their dim hope being that they could salvage enough bodies for a final, apocalyptic last stand against Hitler. If the normal template is the beating of an arrhythmic heart, Dunkirk is a flat line; no majors ups or downs. That it is still fascinating is a Dunkirk Miracle.
And Dunkirk is fascinating (and I don’t even care for war movies). For all the reasons stated above, plus one more: those Stiff-Upper-Lipped Britons. Most modern war movies are intensely personal; Dunkirk is not. The characters are largely amorphous, a concept made flesh. These soldiers exist as the representation of England: its will and determination made manifest. That Dunkirk (the evacuation) even worked had a lot to do with England’s belief in resolute stoicism. That Dunkirk (the movie) works is also due to that. An American war-movie this slow-burning would have demanded one man breaching the blockade and punching Hitler.
“All We Did is Survive.” “…That’s Enough.”
Dunkirk is exceptional. It takes something I couldn’t really care less about, depicts it in a way that eschews grandiosity, and then brings it all home in a way that avoids your typical war-movie treacle. I haven’t seen all the Oscar Movies (yet), but I have to pick “The War Movie: 2017” as my front-runner.
Oh, and thanks for not putting me in the hospital, Mr. Zimmer.