Of all the movies which I had tagged to see this Summer, the one I most looked forward to was Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. First, Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite directors. Second, the taste of Hans Zimmer’s ambient soundtrack which I’d gotten in the trailers was breathtaking. Third, I’m a history nerd and the “Miracle of Dunkirk” is one of the key moments of the 20th Century. The trifecta left me drooling, and this past Monday I found time to head to a showing.
I loved it. Nolan’s depiction of the hopeless situation on Dunkirk’s beach is one of the most visceral experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theatre.
Other than a few lines of text at the beginning of the film, there was no context. The film opens with a few soldiers wandering through the town of Dunkirk, who are then ambushed. Most of these stragglers are shot and killed, but one makes it past the positions of the French Rear Guard and on to the beach. There he witnesses the hundreds of thousands of solders lined up for evacuation. He never encounters an officer to tell him where to go, nor does anyone seem to be moving with great purpose. This is the introduction to life on the beach, and it is terrifying.
The beach, however, is only one of three separate timelines in the film 1. The beach takes place over a week. The second follows one of the small boats sent to rescue the British Expeditionary Forces and takes place over a day. The third follows three RAF pilots and takes place over an hour. These three timelines begin to overlap about two thirds of the way through the film’s running time, but only converge at the very end. I enjoyed catching different elements from each timeline peak into the other two as the film shifted focus. It was as though the film had built-in easter eggs.
There is no omniscient perspective in the film, and both the audience and characters are kept guessing about the wider realities of the battle. Hans Zimmer’s score heightens the tension as the film progresses, and set my nerves on edge. He ought to be up for an Oscar for his work.
I’ve spoken with several people who have also seen the film, and they offer several critiques of Nolan’s work. First, they would have like to have a bit more context to the battle — even a few shots from a German’s perspective would have been appreciated. Second, the sheer number of small ships wasn’t played up enough — my mother 2 pointed out it felt like the one small ship on which we travelled was the only one in the channel in the boat timeline. Third, they found the timeline jumps confusing.
I understand all three critiques, and don’t knock people for making them. At the same time, I appreciate the vision Nolan produced. It’s as close to being embedded in the events of Dunkirk as theater goer can get. The film is less a narrative to be followed as it is an event to be experienced. It’s the confusion and disorientation of the D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan, only Dunkirk never breaks into a more traditional structure. Because of this Dunkirk may end up being the most polarizing film of the year, but a great deal of art worth remembering is.