I still can’t decide if Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is sweeping or intimate. Metaphorical or literal. Complex or elemental. But I’m damn sure the stunning war film is good art and that means it’s all of the above. The A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said it best:
[the film] is powered by an engine of combusting contradictions: It’s at once minimalist and maximalist, cynical and dopey, a big-boy white elephant art film that is actually a lean and mean suspense set-piece machine.
On the surface, Dunkirk has all the trappings of a modern blockbuster war film: big names like Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, 70mm IMAX cinematography, World War Two setting, and plenty of explosions. Dip below the water and you’ll find Dunkirk doesn’t fit within the genre lines so easily. Tom Hardy spends most of his screen time in a cramped Spitfire cockpit with his face covered. Cillian Murphy plays a traumatized soldier who spends most of the film brooding and cowering. The large format cinematography is used for sprawling, quiet shots with barely any dialogue. And finally, this is a World War Two movie without any Americans, about a dark time in British history when victory was retreat. Bayhem this is not.
Characters have names, but they aren’t important. There is dialogue, but most of it is lost in the screech of dive bombers, the bark of gunfire, and Hans Zimmer’s anxiety-inducing ticking clock score. Characters here are defined by their actions. We know very little of their backstory. They are propelled forward by the urge to survive and save lives. These characters are only what they do. Most of the film’s little exposition is delivered by Kenneth Branagh’s pier-master Commander Bolton. He’s the best character to spout it off and it mostly works, but it sticks out in a film that’s otherwise so mechanically minimalist.
Dunkirk’s main conceit is how it weaves three storylines that occur over different periods of time. The longest one is The Mole (took me a while to realize this refers to a “pier” and not to the small burrowing mammal) which takes place over a week. The Sea takes place over one day and follows Mark Rylance as a stoic, duty-bound Brit who braves the English Channel in his personal sailboat. The Sky occurs over one hour as RAF pilots defend retreating ships from the Luftwaffe.
While this can be confusing at times and counterintuitive to immersion, it’s a brilliant tool to ratchet up the tension alongside the precise, merciless editing. Since Nolan and editor Lee Smith have two other timelines to cut away to at any given moment, they can take an event that would play out in only seconds in real life and stretch it for agonizing minutes. Here’s Nolan, talking to Business Insider about the score and story structure:
I interwove the three timelines in such a way that there's a continual feeling of intensity. Increasing intensity. So I wanted to build the music on similar mathematical principals. So there's a fusion of music and sound effects and picture that we've never been able to achieve before.
Through the direction and editing, Dunkirk’s action sequences take on a hypnotic quality. When the narratives converge during the last act, the audience hops back and forth between all three sets of characters. It shows how the subjective power of editing can make time appear to move forward and stand still simultaneously.
Debate will continue for a while over whether Dunkirk is a masterpiece. However, it’s certainly masterful from all formal perspectives. Coming from film school, I can see professors using it to teach editing techniques, non-linear screenwriting, cinematography, production design, sound design, and large-scale direction. There’s so much to pick apart in the nuts and bolts of this movie. Like Baby Driver, it’s a piece of art obviously created by skilled technicians firing on all cylinders (pun intended, I guess).
That’s why I’m inclined to cut Nolan some slack for the ending’s treacly patriotism. After all, this has been his passion project for years and I’m not sure I could resist the same urge. Nolan and Interstellar cinematographer Hoytevan Hoytema wring out gorgeous images even in Dunkirk’s sappiest moments. There’s the fertile metaphor of an RAF Spitfire gliding over the French beach with an empty gas tank. There’s Hardy silhouetted as he watches flames devour his trusty plane. It’s the most beautiful shot in a film packed with beautiful shots from end to end. If the uplifting score and Churchill’s famous “we shall fight on the beaches” speech come off as oversentimental, the film has earned it by this point. The cynic in me was stirred despite my best efforts. That’s an accomplishment I recognize and respect.
On the writing side of things, I haven’t received any rejections since last week. It’s a waiting game, which makes it worse than Monooly and Don’t Wake Daddy combined. More updates as they come.
Oh yeah! I can finally play the entire intro to Don’t Stop Believin’ on the piano. It only took me three years of intermittent practice. At this rate, I’ll know the entire song by 2020!
As always, thanks for reading.