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Dunkirk: An Assault on the senses

Recommendation of YES

Summary: The film tells a triptych of stories on land, sea and air about the successful military retreat of Dunkirk.

 

A friend of mine was confused as to the relative brevity of Dunkirk (a zippy 106 minutes) having expected it to be 2h 30 min as all modern blockbusters are somehow required to be. I jokingly asked if, since Christopher Nolan billed Dunkirk as a thriller and not a war movie, he would be able to survive three hours of tightly wound tension. As it happens, he barely survived the 1 hour 46 minutes.

So the above is quite an opening, and may raise expectations for Dunkirk to be some sort of demolishing assault on the audience, one that would be irresponsible to extend in length lest it kill someone. These are expectations that no multi million dollar wide release film can live up to, but Dunkirk is, if not the most tense thing, a harrowing, tense thing nonetheless.

Right from the first, Dunkirk punctures the quiet of some obligatory historical film exposition cards with the sound of gunfire from the spectre of an advancing German army (unseen save for their aircraft that periodically molest the evacuees) and through a near persistent audio visual assault on the audience, never quite relents. Be it through the loud cracking of gunfire, the whir and creaking of ships and their engines, the howling and roaring of the areal assault, the panicked and pained screams of dying soldiers (mostly also left off screen so you can imagine the horror), or Hans Zimmer’s propulsive score that comes complete with the sound of a ticking clock, Dunkirk uses its sound design to present a suffocating intensity that is evocative and impressionistic in the sense that Nolan only sometimes achieved with Interstellar. Though the success of Dunkirk over Interstellar may also be because they have somewhat opposite approaches to delivering the film experience to the audience.

Where Interstellar was an exposition and dialogue heavy film with unintelligible dialogue, the narrative, such as it is, of Dunkirk has been kept purposefully thin and divvied up into a triptych with three different time scales. Firstly we have “The Mole” (herein describing a solid structure that is often used as a pier, and not a spy), detailing one week in the life of 400,000 British soldiers as they attempt to evacuate while German forces push through French defenses. Secondly, we have “The Sea”, detailing the day long voyage Little Ships that the British Navy requisitioned to aid the evacuation. Thirdly we have “The Air” depicting 1 hour of three spitfire pilots engaging German fighters and bombers in intense dog fights to protect the rescue ships and soldiers on the beach.

Each of these segments focuses on just a handful of individual characters, though it would be fair and accurate to say they are almost entirely thinly characterized. They are there for one purpose, to let the audience vicariously experience the horrors of the evacuation. Without this narrowed perspective, and without the characters being somewhat tabula rasa, Dunkirk could not do what Dunkirk sets out to do. For the very point of the thing is to be a purely cinematic emotional experience of war rather than any specific narrative with any particular themes or arcs to explore.

I have in the past said that Christopher Nolan does not do emotion well; that his films were puzzles and exercises in cinematic mechanics. I do for the most part stand by that, but I must admit that Dunkirk bucks the trend. That is to say in as much as pervasive anxiety is an emotion, and Dunkirk trades in pervasive anxiety, it is perhaps the most authentically emotionally affecting Christopher Nolan film I have seen.

Even the mechanical experimentation one would expect from a Nolan Joint serves as a means of maintaining tension. As noted  above, the film is a triptych that operates at differing time scales. They are constantly cross cut between rather than shown chronologically, only to eventually have them converge by the film’s climax. This converging of the narrative threads serves to bring the film to its emotional climax as well. Due to the differing time scales, the constant cross cutting never allows you to orient yourself in time and space. When we are in a sinking ship next to the mole at night, we may then end up in a late afternoon dog fight over nondescript ocean before finally settling upon a pleasure yacht plucking up a shell shocked soldier off the skeleton of a sinking warship.

Dunkirk is a constant anxiety engine. Its mission statement is to depict a constant state of anarchy spawned from war, and it does so audio-visually with minimal dialogue through blank slate characters at a level that someone smarter than I may say is approaching “Pure Cinema”, being elemental sound and motion with little reliance on exposition. Or probably not. That too may be overselling things, but it does its anxiety making well while looking great and sounding even better.

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