Christopher Nolan. That has become one of the most strangely controversial names in certain film circles. In many ways he’s the guy who’s been doing everything we’ve been asking our Hollywood blockbuster filmmakers to do: he doesn’t abuse CGI, he takes his craft seriously, and he makes original self-contained stories (at least when he’s not making Batman movies). This has led Nolan to be greatly praised and has given him a very loyal fanbase but as with most nice things there’s also been something of a backlash to him. There are a lot of people who resent Nolan’s role as Hollywood’s savior and they’ve come to lash out at his (admittedly sometimes hyperbolic) fans. I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit on the internet pushing back against that backlash as a defender of Nolan, but at the same time I’m not a delusional stan for the guy. I don’t necessarily think The Prestige is quite as good as some people say it is and I outright disliked his last movie Interstellar. I was also skeptical about his latest project, Dunkirk, when I first heard about it and when early trailers were released. It’s not that there was anything about the project that looked “bad” per se, it’s just, in the nearly twenty years since Saving Private Ryan came out the World War II battle film has gotten pretty un-noteworthy and I hadn’t gotten much indication that Nolan was really bringing something terribly special to this one. I mean, I was still had every intention of being there on day one, but I had my doubts.
In Nolan’s film the battle is divided into three different theaters each with slightly different casts of characters which intersect occasionally. The first is labeled “The Mole” and mostly follows a couple of rank and file enlisted men stuck on the beach named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles) who are trying to get off of the beach by various means and we also get to meet a couple of officers commanding the evacuation named Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) who have certain insights into what’s going on which the desperate men on the beach don’t. The second theater, labeled “The Sea,” is on board one of the civilian vessels that famously set out to rescue some of the men on the beach. This one captained by a guy named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) who is accompanied by his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his son’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) and before they reach France they will need to contend with their first rescue, a soldier found on a wrecked boat (Cillian Murphy) who has been left shell-shocked by his experiences in Dunkirk. Finally in the third theater we follow a pair of fighter pilots named Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) who have been sent to protect the men on the beach and the evacuating boats from the Luftwaffe.
One thing I neglected to mention from that description is that, while each of these three stories play out in a linear fashion they aren’t meant to be happening simultaneously and they don’t play out over the same length of time. We are told through title cards that the beach sequences are set over the course of a week, the “sea” sequences are set over the course of a day, and the “air” sequences are set over the course of a single hour. Occasionally these stories intersect; for example at one point a plane goes down in the “air” segment and then the pilot is rescued later in the movie by the boat in the “sea” segment when that timeline catches up. That sounds more confusing on paper than it is in the film and when watching it I wouldn’t recommend you spend too much brainpower trying to piece it all together as it really isn’t essential to enjoying the movie. In fact, I feel like whatever confusion that this format does cause actually kind of improves the movie in a roundabout way because it sort of places you in the mind of these characters that have been thrown into this confusing and chaotic situation.
Dunkirk is a film that is more experiential than narrative in its nature. One could perhaps liken it to an extended version of the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan in its intensity but it lacks that film’s graphic violence and really doesn’t focus on actual combat at all really. We rarely actually see German soldiers in the movie outside of the aerial dogfights, but there presence and the terror they elicit is omnipresent. If asked to liken it to another war movie I might actually point to the 2001 film Black Hawk Down, which also looked at a number of soldiers trying to live through a chaotic military situation that went wrong in a major way. But really I’d more easily liken it to something like United 93 or Gravity which really just place you into a situation and have you just watch as people try to get through it. There isn’t even much dialogue in the movie, so people who’ve criticized Nolan for his exposition in the past should see this as an improvement but that’s not to say that the film is a non-stop action scene as there are some quieter moments. The scenes with Mark Rylance on the boat aren’t entirely action packed and these sections gain a lot of gravitas from Rylance’s quiet strength and there are also moments of relative calm on the beach, but even when things aren’t actively popping off in these segments there’s still a constant threat and no one ever fully feels safe. The section that is pretty much nonstop action are the aerial sequences, which are some of the most intense World War II dogfights I’ve seen. When actual combat with the Nazi fighter pilots is occurring Nolan often opts to focus in on the inside of the cockpit and it can be very suspenseful to watch as Hardy lines enemy planes up in his sights and he prepares to shoot.
Now let’s talk about the presentation options. Christopher Nolan has been perhaps the most outspoken advocate for shooting and presenting movies on film rather than digitally and has made it known that the ideal format to watch the movie in is IMAX 70mm, which is the format I watched it in. In the past I’ve tended to avoid IMAX, in part because the only true IMAX theater (as opposed to the “lie-MAX” theaters that you can find in multiplexes) in my area is at this zoo that’s kind of a pain to get to and the smell from the zoo kind of carries over to it. I’ve also resisted the IMAX presentation for Nolan’s previous movies because none of them have ever been fully shot in IMAX because of both the costs involved and the fact that IMAX cameras are big and unwieldly, and have instead opted to be primarily shot on standard 35mm and broaden out during certain action scenes resulting in aspect ratio changes throughout. That’s always rubbed me the wrong way. I feel like a movie’s framing should be consistent unless there’s some artistic reason for the frame to be changing and to have it just arbitrarily re-frame itself simply because one scene is more expensive than another seems problematic to me. Dunkirk is a little different than some of Nolan’s other films in that the IMAX is now the primary format and conventional 70mm shots are the exception but there are more non-IMAX shots than I expected and their insertion is noticeable both in terms of aspect ratio shifts and the noticeable uptick in film grain during these sections and it was a bit jarring to me.
There are of course upsides to the IMAX presentation though. The screen is obviously huge and the clarity that the 70mm film provides is kind of amazing. There’s also something kind of interesting about seeing a modern blockbuster of this size and scope which is essentially being presented in the old Academy ratio and on a screen that’s actually set up to accommodate it (as opposed to the smaller movies of today in that ratio which look even tinier when presented on multiplex screens). This is especially impactful in the airplane sequences, which are really immersive and use the full height of the screen to really give you a sense of the space between these airplanes. Interestingly enough I almost found the extra oomph of the IMAX sound system to be as impactful as the giant screen. There are moments in the movie where shots suddenly ring out and really shock you with their intensity. A lot of people will tell you that IMAX is the “only” way to see this movie, and while that is a worthwhile experience I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeing it in a regular theater either, in fact I’m thinking about seeing it again in a more conventional setting (one that doesn’t smell a bit like animal shit) just to see for sure how it plays out in that format.
Really what stands out to me most about the film isn’t its technical acumen but the emotion it leaves you with. Though I’m sure the movie has been in production for longer, I think Christopher Nolan may have inadvertently made the perfect movie for the mood of (non-deplorable) people in the wake of Brexit and the Donald Trump election. The Dunkirk evacuation was after all less of a victory than it was a loss mitigation. It was a save that kept a defeat from being a total decimation, and the soldiers who lived through it knew this and didn’t have the benefit of knowing that years later the world would rally to defeat fascism. The film captures that feeling of realizing you’ve been utterly defeated while still being left with a desire to regroup and fight back. That’s a feeling that a lot of people were left with when they heard the bad news on those election days and carry with them into the “resistance.” But you don’t need to be building connections to modern politics to see value in Dunkirk. On a simply visceral level it’s a very exciting movie and it leaves you with some interesting glimpses into what people do in a crisis whether they rise to the occasion or crumble under pressure and makes both of these reactions seem organic and believable but also understandable.