I suppose that Christopher Nolan had to try some new genre in order to add to his already impressive canon. And why not give the world a big, noisy war movie based on what for me was a little-known evacuation of a little-known battle during WWII. Honestly, I didn’t even know that Dunkirk was in France. Hipster Father-in-Law was shocked (shocked!) that Ms. Hipster and I hadn’t heard of Dunkirk, and we explained to him that our paltry education shoved all of American history into one year, including WWII. And since this battle involved no Americans whatsoever, we definitely ignored it (because that’s what we, as Americans, do with history unless it has to do with ancient Sumerian agriculture or the Holy Roman Empire.) So we were starting from a position of ignorance on this one, which didn’t dampen the experience any, but certainly didn’t give us a great sense of context that a Brit (or someone born in 1942) might have on the situation.
So, Nolan generally makes rather dark, moody films. Dark in the sense that sometimes they’re actually, physically dark and also in the sense that there is always this lingering feeling of doom that hangs over the narrative. And usually that feeling of doom is paid off with some great twist on which the film either pivots, or that the entirety of the film rests. He tends to tell stories in the post-modern way of breaking timelines and not progressing in a linear fashion. His best example of this is Memento, though Interstellar literally examines time in a dimensional/scientific sense. With Dunkirk, he sticks with what he knows and tells the story of the troop evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk from what I think are about three different timelines that all work their way towards one another and eventually cross in act three as land, air and sea meet. For a story told over one day that essentially involves thousands of soldiers trying to evacuate a beach while German planes occasionally fly by strafing and dropping bombs on them, his methodology definitely adds a dynamism that wouldn’t otherwise be there if told traditionally. His other strength is — and is especially evident in this film — showing and not telling. In fact there is very little dialogue in this movie. There are entire scenes that go by without anyone saying anything of consequence, but tension is built and the narrative pushed forward just through visual awesomeness. Granted, narrative-wise, what’s going on is pretty evident: everyone is just trying to survive and get back to England. The three fighter pilots we see are trying to knock their German counterparts out of the air before they bomb the evacuating boats or shred the soldiers waiting on the beach to evacuate. The soldiers on the evacuating boats are just trying to make it back across the Channel to England before the German planes or German U-boats blow then out of the water and the British citizens, whose boats were commandeered to go save the troops because the army/navy/air force couldn’t spare the equipment while they fought on other fronts, are just trying to get to shore to help evacuate their soldiers because the aforementioned naval ships have mostly been sunk and/or can’t get to the beach for fear of running aground.
So how do you create that tension and emotion when you have sparse dialogue on par with something like Mad Max: Fury Road? Well, first you hire Hans Zimmer to do the music. And then you hire someone equally as gnarly to do the score and the sound editing. Where there would normally be narrative and actors acting in trying to build suspense and dread, Nolan uses striking visuals, amazing sound effects and an almost horror-like soundscape of jarring, atonal noise to put the viewer on edge — not unlike what I recall from Under the Skin (which was, in essence, a sort of horror movie). I’m not at all knowledgeable about how music, scores and sound effects come together in a movie, but this seemed like a masterclass that was both obvious and not, and really made for an experience that was driven to the point of overwhelming in the best possible movie-going way.
Watching dudes leave the beach only to be bombed and return to the shore to be bombed yet again felt a bit like an unfunny English version of Groundhog Day. So much so that I honestly started to laugh as we watched our poor, young soldiers seemingly escape their frying-pan predicament, only to end up right back in the fire. Thematically, it was pretty obvious to me that this was another foray into the futility-of-war segment. And while that was certainly the case for about 90% of the film, we are treated to something more inspirational and ultimately satisfying as the film draws to a conclusion. Granted, this is a true story. One that I, again, had no idea about. So it’s not as if Nolan wrote a different ending or anything, but he managed to do what a lot of war films don’t: make it both large and small at the same time. It’s the aim, of course, of most filmmakers to pull this off, but in Nolan’s capable hands, the thing just takes on this timeless quality that feels both grand and almost claustrophobic at times — especially as we watch scene after scene of water closing in on us, drowning us along with the characters like we haven’t been since The Abyss. I definitely wish I’d seen the thing on a bigger and better screen than I did, but I imagine that even the smaller dramas will play well on the small screen once it comes to a streaming service near you.
PS – I did do a double-take when I saw a few small groups of teen and pre-teen girls in the theater — not the typical audience for a WWII film by any stretch of the imagination. I was reminded afterward by Ms. Hipster that they were there to see Harry Styles of One Direction fame. Honestly, I knew he was in the movie, but all the young guys with good hair in the film looked the same to me and I soon forgot there was a wayward pop star in the mix. It’s actually a brilliant idea to put him in it, as it probably boosted their box office numbers quite a bit based solely on his presence and may have accidentally (or subliminally) taught the kids a little something about history and the awfulness of war at the same time.