You’re gonna need a nap after this movie because MY GOODNESS, this is quite an intense experience!
This is my review of Dunkirk!
The year is 1940. Nazi Germany has invaded France and, as a result, thousands of Allied soldiers are now held hostage on the seaside town of Dunkirk. On the surface, the situation might not seem so urgent (just stay put in that town and wait for help to come along)…until we realize that the Allied perimeter is shrinking and–ergo–German forces are closing in on the vulnerable men. In addition, these are 400,000 men who are needed back in England to protect the homefront. Told from three perspective angles–land, air, and sea–we the audience watch with bated breath the horrors these men endure as they desperately await deliverance from the evil closing in on them.
In reviewing movies, something I have learned is that with certain film pieces–primarily ones with unconventional narrative styles–is to look at what the filmmaker’s intention was in the creation of the project. When I kept hearing from friends who had seen the film that there was little dialogue and essentially no main protagonist, I knew that finding out Christopher Nolan’s intent would be key in giving the movie a fair review. Sure enough, I came across a quote from Nolan himself where he explains the main goal of Dunkirk:
“The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story. I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters… The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? Will they be killed by the next bomb while trying to join the mole? Or will they be crushed by a boat while crossing?”
–Christopher Nolan on “Dunkirk”
With that in mind, did Christopher Nolan achieve his goal in employing visual storytelling to chronicle the battle on Dunkirk?
Ladies and gentlemen…YES! He did and he did it masterfully. This isn’t like with Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor,” where the historical narrative gets bogged down by a clichéd romance between Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale. No, this is a straightforward visual saga of 400,000 men trying to keep their heads above water (quite literally at some points in the film) as they fight to stay alive each day and night. To quote YouTube movie reviewer Ralph Sepe Jr., “A really great film is one you can watch with the sound off and still know what’s going on.” Dunkirk is most certainly an experience and one that should be viewed in IMAX. Granted, it would still be effective without IMAX, but for an even more dramatic effect, I would recommend seeing it in IMAX. The bang and clamor is palpable as the men go from one brush with death to another. The visual experience of Dunkirk is so visceral that you WILL hear the bullets whizzing by your ear. Your heart WILL pound rapidly at each and every bomb that falls from the sky and blasts the sand beneath their boots. This movie provides very little breathing room, i.e. no scenes of the men joking with bottles of beer in hand, so expect to be holding your breath many times throughout the film.
Yes, there is very little dialogue in this film, and in a strange way it actually works to the film’s advantage. Let’s be honest: In a high-stress situation, would there really be any small chit-chat going on? No, I don’t think so. Okay, maybe there’d be that one guy who tries to lighten the mood, but even he would have one thing on his mind in the midst of danger: “Survive.” Because there’s no cheesy sentences about a girlfriend back home or clichéd speeches about freedom and the American way, the story is what take center-stage–as it should be. While there is no main protagonist to relate to, this enables the audience to care for all the men, which from a Catholic perspective brings to mind the Church’s stance on the dignity of every person; how whether you know somebody’s name or not, they have an inherent dignity simply because they are.
A friend of mine pointed out, “Notice how there is very little blood. Nobody gets decapitated or anything. Saving Private Ryan focused on the physical aspects of war; Dunkirk is more interested in the psychological.” You are definitely right, M.P.! This movie will definitely leave you in a state of dread and anticipation. The first five minutes puts us through sudden gunfire that will leave you shaken, and you’ll be even more anxious when the men narrowly survive the first round of bombs dropped. The film is unrelenting in not letting a single moment pass without the men coming face-to-face with some form of catastrophe. The end result is that we, the audience, are right there with them. Our hearts are pounding as loudly as theirs, we tremble every time the characters look up at aircrafts hovering over them in the ashen skies, we do not feel safe on land or sea. Even the skies bring the promise of hellfire upon these stranded soldiers. Yes, there are physical deaths and wounded fighters, but the psychological hell of waiting for a bullet to come for you burns itself into your brain all the way to the end credits.
This movie does not transition between Acts very well. The majority of mainstream films follow a three-act structure. I’ll give just one example:
The First Act of Pan’s Labyrinth begins with the faun’s narration of the fairytale and ends when–in present day–the faun tells Ofelia that she has to find three items before the full moon. The Second Act starts when Ofelia crawls into the large tree to confront the Toad and ends when [SPOILER] her mother dying in childbirth. The Third Act begins at Carmen’s funeral and leads us to the climax and resolution.
Case in point: With Pan’s Labyrinth, you knew exactly when and how the story was progressing. Meanwhile with Dunkirk, it was a bit hard to tell where we were in terms of story progression. I actually had to look at my phone at one point, and I saw that it was only 9:00 and I was at the 8:00 screening. I wouldn’t have pointed this out if it weren’t for the fact that SO MUCH happens in the first act that I thought we were somewhere in the second act. You know those movies that have a scene or two that is all shot in one take? This whole movie felt like it was done in one take, which would be revolutionary if there were indicators in the plot that, “The first act is drawing to a close, now we’re heading into Act Two.” The weaving and connecting of the storylines on air, land and sea was a tad clumsy.
I kind of wish it had an ending that was a little more hopeful. Basically if you’ve watched The Theory of Everything all way through (which you absolutely should do because it is amazing), the vibe you got with the way that movie ended is the same one you’ll feel at the end of Dunkirk. I’ll just put it this way: For a movie that markets the triumphant rescue of 400,000 men, the actual triumph is really downplayed. Going back to Christopher Nolan’s intent, maybe that was the point, but still a small spark of hope after being rescued would have been welcomed.
Dunkirk is, above all things, an experience. A bone-chilling, white-knuckled, gut-wrenching depiction of war. Crisp camerawork, subtle acting and to-the-point storytelling elevates Dunkirk so that it stands firmly among the great war movies all while standing alone as a unique art piece in modern cinema.
Blessed Fr. Jacques Hamel, pray for us.