Dunkirk is a brutal, unrelenting film that I both revere and will never see again. It’s hard to watch because it’s not a war movie—it’s a survival movie. It kicks you into the dirt and holds you there with only the briefest respites for breath, utilizing every inch of the cinematic buffalo to turn its 106-minute runtime into a paralyzing grip of audio and visual overload with a heartfelt emotional, human element.
While not writer/director Christopher Nolan’s best work, it is the most affecting in that way. It takes every possible avenue to bring you into the moment and only spit you back out when it’s had its say. Seeing it in IMAX is a borderline necessity as it isn’t set on just shooting one syringe of this now-legendary event into you like in Atonement but replacing every ounce of your with this bleak and dire tableau of British desperation.
There are sweeping, wholly engulfing shots of this dying beach that are truly astonishing. And it’s not just a gimmick to spread your eyeballs onto oversized screen like jelly onto toast; it has a purpose. It gives Nolan room to play with the scope of any given scene, letting the vastness of the ocean play to the real estate or emulating the claustrophobic panic that sets in when water floods the lower decks of a destroyer. (And no, I did not see it in digital to compare, but I did see it in 35 mm first, so there’s that.)
Part of the experience is simply that the better the sound at your viewing, the better. Hans Zimmer has produced a score that is absolutely inextricable from the other audio components and the visuals. The entire film is perhaps best described as a symphony, really, using musical cues—with Baby Driver-esque timed diegetic sounds at times—to push and pull the audience in and out of moments. Between the incessant ticking reminding you of the imminent end (further reminiscent of Atonement and its sound design) and the otherworldly booms and cracks of falling bombs, it is truly a remarkable achievement.
And that, in particular, seems to be the goal of the movie. It aims to give a broad yet encompassing view of the Miracle of Dunkirk rather than funnel it down into one individual tale of heroism or sacrifice. Even when you are trapped below deck with these characters, it hardly ever feels like you are there with them. It’s more like you are fully surrounded by every event happening in that moment on Dunkirk’s pale, drowning shores.
That’s not to say, however, that it doesn’t also make you feel for these characters. Stretched out between several different perspectives, we see the evacuation and the desperation from many points of view. One is the basic and desperate need to survive, another to win the war, and another to simply win the day. And then there are ancillary characters that fill the gaps in between those, offering nuanced (as nuanced as it can be when you barely know their names amidst stomach-turning explosions) shades of what they mean to the story.
The emblematic collection of heroes surfaces in one such thread with Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a hobbyist mariner, and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their deckhand George (Barry Keoghan). After establishing that waiting to be rescued by the Royal Navy is hopeless, seeing Dawson take off on his accord to save those stranded soldiers is alarming. His stoicism is not nearly as inspiring as it is frightfully foolhardy.
But as layers get compounded into this thread from their own perspective, it turns into a heartening and triumphant odyssey, even though the victory is not as complete as they would hope. As a shellshocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) clambers aboard from his sunken vessel, his lone survivor status becomes the reminder of what they’re sailing into. More and more bodies continue to litter the water around them, the noose of the beach tightening.
It only comes to a successful head in terms of storytelling through Nolan’s masterful touch of weaving together seemingly disparate narratives that dovetail together. In his other works, these largely work as moments of shock and revelation. Here, though, it is a culminating, relational viewing that conjures the precise sensation of honor-bound duty that solemnly invigorated an Allied front. It all comes smashing together at an alarming yet strangely relieving rate as the movie races towards the finish line, and as you peek through your fingers, it’s not debris left on the beach but a victory. A bloodied, dirty, broken win.
Granted, some of his classic shtick only serves to make brittle certain moments. His penchant for the bombastic side of nonlinear storytelling, for instance, fills one particular scene with the barest whisper of jaw-dropping surprise. It was just enough to derail it from the then-ongoing and totally effective emotional development it had worked so hard to achieve.
Some of the more intense battle sequences also falls prey to his consistently worse tendencies as an action director. Think back on the totally incomprehensible chase scene in The Dark Knight. Now put it 10,000 feet in the air as he tries to keep barely distinguishable fighter planes in digestible arcs across the sky. It’s disorienting and bland in a completely displeasing way, taking you so far out of the sequence that you can taste disinterest and boredom forming at the tip of your tongue.
Even with this humongous caveats to the few pillars that prop up this film, the enormity of the story and the way it’s told overshadows even them. It’s huge and grand in ways few war movies are (and even less survival films), focusing not on the idea that the good guys win or that bad guys are evil. It pushes the agendas of war aside and shoves your face so far into the sand they walk on that it’s impossible to see anything else. It’s just the way those men fought that war, and Nolan gives it to you in the most gutting and beautiful way possible.
Final Score: 9 out of 10