You think you know war films? Think again. Nolan’s Dunkirk is probably one of the most ambitiously edited, unique and tense war films ever made.
One of the most disastrous moments in World War Two sees Allied forces from Britain, Belgium and France trapped against the French coast and the constricting frontline of Nazi invasion forces. With over 400,000 men helpless and stranded on the beaches, it is a desperate race to save them with what little resources are left.
There are many things said about director Christopher Nolan: One, he is a technical mastermind behind the camera, two, he knows how to edit his films, three, he cannot direct emotional performances and four, he brought Hollywood the concept of “Nolanifying”; that is the act of over-explaining and expositing the heck out of his scripts.
2017’s Dunkirk is the best film he has made since… Memento?
Straight off the bat, our opening scene is a chase scene through the streets of France. A single soldier survives the gun battle and we are immediately upon the beaches, the title “The Mole: 1 Week” appears on screen, initially perplexing. The film’s narrative is divided over three perspectives, from a handful of young soldiers on the beaches, from an old sailor and his sons sailing across the channel to lend aid, and from a Spitfire pilot in the skies above. But more than this, “The Mole: 1 Week” is a time frame, the time spent on the beaches, while the sailor (Mark Rylance) has “1 Day”, while the pilot (Tom Hardy) perspective has only “1 Hour”.
Through intense editing and a through-line of incredibly limited dialogue, all three perspectives slowly begin to merge. Example: When Tom Hardy’s one hour as Farrier stumbles upon a blue boat under attack in the open ocean, the scene ends, following that we then see the young soldiers finding the boat and prepare to launch it. Editing foreshadowing, a non-linear narrative, similar to Nolan’s debut Memento.
This is the structure of the film. It dances from one perspective to another, showing events not chronologically, but in such a way that ramps up the tension and keeps the audience on tenterhooks. Hopefully you didn’t miss the first ten minutes! The captions will be your first clue!
Boy, is the film a nightmare of wartime reality. With such a bold editing choice, a three act structure almost doesn’t exist. The film almost feels like one long third act; an incredible pressure cooker moment where helpless people are on the verge of death. One moment it is a cacophony of wailing Stuka Bomber sirens, the next it is a soldier suffering shellshock, followed by men trying (and often failing) to escape sinking ships. The film is not for the faint of heart; there are little moments of respite here, and when there is it is only accompanied by the awesome score by Hans Zimmer (easily the best work he has done since The Dark Knight) drilling tension and the omnipresent doom onto our characters. The Nazi forces are never shown beyond their vicious aircraft; they are “the enemy”, represented as a war machine intent on relentlessly wiping everyone out.
There are no half measures with production either. Each perspective is lovingly recreated for authenticity, indeed, with such a bare-minimal script most exposition and character development is through sets, costumes and physical acting. I wouldn’t say it was “emotional”, there’s no time to “get to know the characters”, this isn’t a Spielberg movie, but it is certainly harrowing and real. It is about the survival of the moment.
The undulating and cross-weaving perspectives make the one-hundred minute film (short by Nolan’s standards and better for it!) a brutal representation of a moment in history.
It is a bleak and hard experience, but Nolan has crafted a film with singular purpose with subtly and incredible mastery of in-camera practical effects and editing.
Additional Marshmallows: Harry Styles, who? I am lucky I have no idea who he is or anything about his boy band One Direction. Honestly, I didn’t even notice. The script is so bare bones and visceral that no one stood out as phony or out of place. Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh wisely get the heaviest roles in terms of dialogue.
Additional, additional marshmallows: I am not one for IMAX, but seeing this in that format would be absolutely incredible.