By Andrew Jenck
Often films set in WWII blur together in many respects. Narratives such as a romance between a soldier and his doll, dedicating a large portion to the soldier’s home life before going into battle, and the trumpet-heavy score, can become, while not necessarily bad, a bit cliché. This is why the promotional material behind Dunkirk intrigued me, putting heavier emphasis on the battle itself. My initial impressions proved to be true. Dunkirk is a brilliant cinematic experience. One that keeps you on the edge of your seat from the beginning, with sequences that demand to be shown on the big screen, and with surround sound that makes you feel a part of the action.
Director Christopher Nolan has crafted an unconventional war film that puts you right in the battlefield; one which is less concerned with fleshing out the characters’ motivation and backstories, and more about showcasing the turmoil and struggle they experience. The film intentionally lacks a single main character, for the most part, using different characters to show all perspectives of the evacuation of British troops from Nazi-controlled France. There is a group of young soldiers who are desperate to leave the bay; pilots attempting to shoot down enemy fighters with a limited supply of fuel; generals who oversee the evacuation; and several citizens trying to rescue the soldiers with their small fishing ships.
For some, this can be a bit confusing, and a second viewing may be necessary to understand the timeline and how the film flips back and forth. However, I found the narrative to be well realized, as there’s enough focus on these plots for you to be invested. There is only one exposition scene in which a character reveals why he wanted to go into battle. The film doesn’t concern itself with establishing the character’s motivation for fighting the war but the attempts for their and others’ survival of the battle. This could result in flat characters, but it’s elevated by the performances with subtle nuances and expressions. The way they react to their surroundings is similar to how you would react, and the attention to detail on their appearances show you what kind of characters they are.
I know many people who desire historic accuracy and will most likely prefer following the real soldiers in the battlefield. However, Dunkirk takes inspiration from Titanic in which its characters are not meant to be historic figures but a representation of the real-life soldiers. Almost every time there may be hope, an attack occurs, which will leave you frustrated at the Nazis while sympathetic to the soldiers. With this being PG-13 rated, Nolan focuses on the scope of the attacks, as opposed to the gore. Seeing the destruction of ships and how the soldiers are put to their wits end can be more involving then seeing wounded or dead bodies at times. The film also makes a great call in not personifying the enemy by not showing any Nazi soldiers until the very end, and even then, you don’t see their faces. It portrays them as a brute, relentless force as opposed to a group of individuals.
Finally, the sound effects and Hans Zimmer’s score significantly add to the experience. The sounds of the roaring engines of the planes, the gunshots, and the sinking ships are loud to emphasize the hostile environment. This is what surround sound in a theater is meant for: to convince the audience that they are in the middle of the action. As opposed to more traditional, orchestral music that’s common in war films, Zimmer’s score reflects that of war planes swooping down or a ticking clock to emphasize shortage of time. It’s one of those aspects of film that a general audience doesn’t consciously notice but which adds to their enjoyment.
I understand that some may not praise Dunkirk as I have. The timeline may be hard to follow for some and the dialogue can be hard to hear and understand. Still, this is a film that will have you invested from beginning to end. It’s rare these days to see a summer blockbuster not intending to set up a franchise but focused solely on great storytelling and filmmaking. It is one of the less restricted films I’ve seen in a long time and will most likely end up among the best of the year.