When you watch a Nolan movie, you know you’re not being spoonfed. You’ve been served an exquisite dish – with tasteful and minimalistic cutlery – and it’s up to you how you make your way through it.
I’d never been so excited about a war film before I watched Dunkirk’s trailer. I was curious to see how Nolan goes about it, and it’s safe to say that he has turned the very concept on its head in a way only he could have. Of course, he bought and decimated an actual Spitfire, and of course, he shot it in 70mm – those things are expected from a director revered globally for his godlike movie-making prowess. But what amazed me were certain things that changed the meaning of war films in general, in a way none of us could have fathomed.
When it’s Nolan, you know the linear passage of time will get kicked hard in the butt. But I didn’t realize there were three completely different time passages being shown simultaneously in the film – one week, one day, and one hour. Through all the gunshots, dizzying POVs from fighter planes, the jagged breathing, and the sheer desperation, I didn’t even have the time to process it. I did realize what the mad genius had done towards the end when all three stories (on land, water and sea) came together in a maddening crescendo. Beautiful.
Nolan didn’t use similar war tropes in this movie. There was no need to even mention the Germans, let alone show us their side of the story. Why? Because that wasn’t the point. The point was to bring us as close as possible to the face of war, trap us inside its murky jaws, make us feel the pointlessness of battlefields, make us hold our breaths and jump in our seats. There are no heroes in the film, so to speak. If we had to spell it out, then survival or getting home is the protagonist, and war or death, the antagonist. Getting out of Dunkirk is the only thing that mattered. Even the title of the film says a lot about what it focuses on.
Another thing I appreciated about the movie is that it doesn’t use any sentimentality, which is the easiest thing to do in a movie surrounded by death and destruction. There was no carnage, no pieces of bodies flying off, no soldiers crying out for their friends, no wives/children/parents waiting for their sons back home. There was no war strategy, no blooming friendships, no extended shots of dead soldiers. He didn’t use any well-known actors, there was hardly any dialogue, he didn’t even show Hitler or Churchill. He didn’t need to do all that because that wasn’t his intention. All he wanted the viewer to do was to be there – at the beach, on the ships, in the jets, under the water, fighting for their lives amidst fire and missiles and torpedos. Everything else seems too insignificant.
The shots were breathtaking. You almost felt like a war videographer, following these soldiers, trying to survive yourself. You were as much a part of the narrative as any other soldier – crawling like ants in neat files, finding refuge in abandoned boats, waiting with an acquired sense of patience, hoping and hoping to be taken home. Everything from shaky camera movements, to disorienting shots of capsizing ships, to the deafening sound of gunshots – everything in the movie is designed to shake you, to play on all your senses. It’s not a dramatic movie, but with the looming terror of dread and Hans Zimmer’s heart-stopping music, it’s a psychological thriller. It’ll make you hold your breath right until Tom Hardy successfully lands the plane on that beach, right until the soldiers reach home. Dunkirk is not a story, it’s a first-hand experience, less likely to make you exit the hall with tearful eyes, and more likely to make you walk out with a glazed, vacant expression.
In terms of character development, I wouldn’t say I could feel too much about any of the characters. I didn’t even get most of their names – but I guess that is what Nolan wanted to do. I wouldn’t say it’s as amazing a spectacle as Interstellar, the music not nearly as haunting, the characters not as long-lasting, but it’s definitely something that makes you forget the hall, forget the people, forget the world around you. It’s an exercise in complete immersion – it’s existential, it’s introspective, it’s deeply personal, almost meditative. And that’s what great cinema is all about.