Christopher Nolan’s Cleverness Never Ends | Film Review: “Dunkirk”

This year, the film I have most looked forward to seeing is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. As a World War II buff and history teacher, when I heard this film was being made, my immediate reaction was, “Finally, a movie about the single most important event of the war.”  Without the evacuation at Dunkirk, the Normandy Invasions might not have been possible, as a large number of that D-Day force was made up of those rescued from Dunkirk’s beaches. Because of the event’s historical importance, not to mention cultural significance, the subject matter deserves an expert director, an ensemble cast, and a screenplay that presents the material in a new, exciting way.  With Nolan at the helm, and with a plethora of British stars, both old and new, Dunkirk is easily the best film of the year so far. 

A historical fiction movie to its core, Dunkirk begins with a young British soldier running towards the beaches of Dunkirk so he can be evacuated back to Great Britain with the other 400,000 troops.  If this was any other director, it would be the story of this man’s attempt to survive the constant assault by the German Luftwaffe on both the beaches and the evacuation ships.  Of course, this is not another director; it’s Chris Nolan, and so he gives us his patented disjointed, multi-layered narrative, that rolls three stories at Dunkirk over three different time frames into one.  The soldier’s story (Fionn Whitehead) and the events on the beach take place over one week’s time; the story of one of the civilian boaters (Mark Rylance) who sailed to Dunkirk occurs during the course of a single day; and the story of a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot (Tom Hardy), who defends the beaches and ships from the Luftwaffe, happens within an hour. The stories continually cut in and out for most of the movie.  As the climactic evacuation draws nearer, the stories begin to overlap until they are one.  Then, for the last few minutes of the film, the stories break off on their own again, and make for a depressingly beautiful finale.  

The key to making this film work visually is the acting ensemble. Unlike Saving Private Ryan, this film isn’t about a story of one group of people saving one individual in the midst of war.  It’s about the group of people being saved (soldiers), the group of people doing the saving (civilians), and the people defending the other two groups (RAF pilots). Because the film is done in such a way where there is no true star of the movie, it is absolutely paramount that every member of the cast do more than just pull his own weight. With heavyweights like Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, and even an unseen Michael Caine, there is no fear that the acting will be a weak point for the film. The younger actors, Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles, also shine on this grand stage.  Styles, who plays a distraught and increasingly desperate British soldier trapped on Dunkirk, while given less screen time than most of the other actors, manages to be one of the highlights of the movie.  Branagh’s stoicism as the commanding officer of everyone on the beach, as well as his commitment to every one of them, is particularly wonderful to watch, even in this small role.  Tom Hardy, however, rules the air with his performance as RAF pilot Farrier. He is practically the only one in his timeframe, and while you almost never see his face, his performance is nonetheless the best and most important of the film (and for spoiler reasons, I will not say why).  

Before I get to Nolan’s writing and directing, which may earn him an Oscar nomination in each category, I want to talk about the score, the single greatest aspect of this movie, or any movie this composer is involved in.  Without this piece, it’s not a big leap to say that the whole film falls apart.  Hans Zimmer’s music, like the spine of a skeleton, is what holds everything together.  The whole film is, from the start, about how little time there is.  Zimmer, always a master of ingenuity, went the quite literal route and used the ticking of a watch as the base of his music.  If you look back on the biggest films he has been involved in, from Driving Miss Daisy and The Lion King, his first and only Oscar win, through Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean, all the way up to The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar, there is nothing this man cannot make music with.  Give Zimmer an orchestra, a vocalist, the chant of prisoners, the groan of engines, and now, the ticking of Chris Nolan’s pocket watch, and he will deliver you beautiful music worthy of praise, Grammys, Golden Globes, and Oscars.  

Nolan, for the millionth time, shows that he is one of the best writers and the best director of this generation.  He takes a story, a story we all learned in history class, and finds a way to turn it on its head into something magnificent.  His brilliance as a writer is shown in one key scene after the boats arrive.  Branagh is walking along the pier and asks a woman on one of the larger boats where she came from.  She replies, “Dublin.”  All the cities in England to choose from, and he picks the capital of the newly independent Republic of Ireland.  While this seems small and insignificant, this is actually one of the smartest writing choices I have ever seen.  The history between Ireland and Great Britain was, and still is, incredibly tenuous to say the least.  During WWII, Ireland remained shockingly neutral to the public.  Behind closed doors, however, they supported the Allies (see the Cranborne Report).  This small nod to the Irish for the part they played not only at Dunkirk, but in the war in general is incredibly touching and exceedingly brilliant.  

The one, big thing Nolan puts a focus on as the director is the juxtaposition of the soldiers and the civilians.  In every war film, or at least most of them, the soldiers rush into battle, protecting civilians from the enemy combatants, getting them out of harm’s way.  Here, however, the soldiers are, from the start, running and trying to get away from the fight, and the civilians are the ones willingly going into the fray. Cillian Murphy’s entrance as a shellshocked soldier is the real collision of this role change between civilian and soldier.  Murphy is found floating on a torpedoed ship and rescued by Rylance.  When Murphy finds out they are going to Dunkirk, he begs them not to go.  Later, when he sees they have not turned back to Great Britain, he loses his mind and begins to fight with Rylance and the two boys who accompanied him. He eventually calms down, but Nolan’s point is clear: the roles have switched.  

Historically, the Miracle at Dunkirk is not important solely because of the war effort; it is, at its heart, a moment of humanity in the face of one of the darkest evils the world has ever faced. Making sure he did everything right, Nolan enlisted about ten boats that actually sailed to Dunkirk 77 years ago.  Ensuring that it is not lost on the audience that these are everyday people sailing into war, he captures the soldiers in their uniforms waving and saluting, and cuts to the faces and attire of the sailors: old men in overcoats and raincoats, young boys in sweaters, and women in their blouses and hats. In times such as these, when the humanity of the world seems so far away, Dunkirk reminds us that all it takes to change the course of history are ordinary people.  

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