Both Sides Now: Dunkirk (Part 3)

Welcome to Both Sides Now, a (probably quite short) series in which the author discusses and reviews feature films he participated in the making of.

Dir. Christopher Nolan
Premiered July 13, 2017

“All we did was survive.”
“That’s enough.”

Since nearly the beginning of this century, the template for war cinema has been Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. Made in an era that struggled to keep war movies relevant, Black Hawk Down would almost certainly have gone down as a legendary blunder if not for the questionably good fortune to come out after 9/11. But it did, and as a result, its cinematography, editing, sound design, and music combined to reset the standards for how major motion pictures depicted combat, as well as having popularized themes of struggling with the unexpected and reliance on one’s fellow men that have unfortunately metastasized into what I call “Valor Porn.” But that’s gonna happen when you let a genre stagnate for sixteen years.

From what I read in those emerging– and mostly surreally positive– reviews, Dunkirk appears ready to succeed Black Hawk Down as the newest war movie standard-bearer. And true to form, it throws everything we’ve come to expect out the window. That Dunkirk fits snugly within director Christopher Nolan’s established oeuvre is to be expected; to do so and function as a serious historical picture less so: a war movie that, in defiance of all genre convention, rejects linear story structure and even basic characterization and relies only on the most basic elements of the situation portrayed to extract all of the pathos, heart, and heroism that you could ever need.*

May 1940: after smashing Poland and Scandinavia, Hitler’s armies are moving into the low countries and France, trapping nearly the entire British Army on the beaches of the town of Dunkirk, where the Wehrmacht’s tanks have stopped moving in so the Luftwaffe can destroy the allies by air. While France prepares to capitulate, the British secretly prepare to fight on, and needing their warships to do so, begin requisitioning small civilian boats from the coast of England– just over the horizon– to rescue as many of the 400,000 soldiers as they can. This is related to us by an Army and Navy officer (James D’Arcy and Kenneth Branagh) on the mole being used as a dock for the evacuation after the German planes have destroyed the harbor.

The scenario is played out in three parts: all covering differing lengths of time which converge at the film’s climax, allowing individual situations and setpieces to be seen from multiple points of view in a way that actually heightens the suspense and drama:

The Mole: One Week
The last surviving member of his squad (Fionn Whitehead) flees behind the lines of the seemingly doomed but selflessly brave French and onto the beach. Teaming up with a speechless comrade (Aneurin Barnard) and embittered stranger (Harry Styles), the three continually attempt to find a lift back to England, but are continually stymied by German planes and u-boats. Needless to say, Nolan’s trademark fear of drowning plays a big part…

The Sea: One Day
Rather than allow the Navy to take his boat, a kindly older man (Mark Rylance) and his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) set out to rescue the Army themselves, with a young friend (Barry Keoghan) in tow. Things get dangerous when they discover one surviving officer (Cillian Murphy) atop a wrecked ship, who refuses to go back to France…

The Air: One Hour
Without sufficient support, staff, or experience, two RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) are all that stands between safe passage for the Army and total destruction by the Luftwaffe, a situation complicated when one pilot goes down and the other is unable to tell how much fuel he has left…

Dunkirk’s rejection of normal character tropes– most of the people we follow are never even named– flies in the face of what we have come to expect from movies like this. But it also freshens the experience like little else before: without such an effort to make us care, there’s no indication of who might live or die. And in liberating us from those expectations, we begin to imagine ourselves as the people onscreen. If that sounds like lazy writing, rest assured it’s quite powerful, and resonates well with one of Nolan’s other running themes: “it’s not who I am underneath but what I do that defines me.”

Some who may have been taken aback at Dunkirk’s PG-13 rating needn’t worry: the movie never feels as if it’s hiding anything from you, and the general absence of blood is easily compensated by the horrors of modern war at sea.** And despite its mysterious and disparate nature, Dunkirk is a true cinematic experience that accomplishes everything Nolan intended. From the extraordinary sound design, melding sound effects, Hans Zimmer’s score, and the ticking of the clock; to resplendent cinematography (all 70mm and/or IMAX), editing, and state-of-the-art practical effects that form a symphony of terror and triumph.

Signs This Was Made in 2017
Dunkirk itself isn’t as busted as it should be and features a number of buildings from after the war, but that’s what happens when you film on location.

How Is It Doing?
To date, Dunkirk has grossed $524.9 million against a lean $100 million budget. We may also presume that the budget isn’t inflated, because Nolan, who also produced, seems like a responsible family man who doesn’t make a habit of screwing his creative partners. Dunkirk’s unique reliance on IMAX and 70mm paid off in ways that similar format revivals (by, say, Quentin Tarantino) had not, and ensured a longer shelf-life than the typical blockbuster. Indeed, when the film was screened for surviving Dunkirk veterans, several jokingly claimed that the movie was louder than the real battle. Some have speculated that the creation of the experience using traditional film may break Hollywood’s love affair with 3D, but only time will tell.

Critics were similarly glowing, earning a 92% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone claimed that it may be the greatest war movie ever made. Several proclaimed it Nolan’s best feature film. The film was not without criticism for largely omitting the presence of Commonwealth and Allied remnant forces (ignoring the French troops), as well as whitewashing (to degrees varying from legitimate to “guys, it was 1940” territory while again ignoring the French troops), but the reception was otherwise overwhelmingly positive.

In a surprise move, Dunkirk was screened after its wide release at the Toronto International Film Festival, signaling an interest by WB and Nolan in winning awards despite being a “summer movie.” From where I stand, the Oscar race remains stacked in favor of Steven Spielberg’s upcoming The Post, but among films yet released, awards season is Dunkirk’s to lose, and combined with the Weinstein scandal, may finally break the Academy out of its fourth-quarter obsession; as it stands, Dunkirk seems poised to be a cinematic success by every measure.

*It’s basically the anti-Hacksaw Ridge.
Again, it’s basically the anti-Hacksaw Ridge.

Next Time: Suburbicon