There is a moment in “Dunkirk” roughly halfway into its surprisingly taut runtime, where Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Alex (Harry Styles) and Gibson (Aneurin Bernard), three slender young men trapped at the eponymous French beach with 400,000 others, are sitting on the shore and gazing towards the raging sea that stands between them and home, between death and deliverance. They see a soldier walking into the lapping waves, with nothing on his person, as if he has embraced his fate; as if this is his deliverance. With no signs of any rescue coming in and the threat of German dive bombers looming consistently, the soldier’s actions seem to be stemming from conviction; that he will not die in fear and on someone else’s terms. But, soon, especially in the context of the themes of the film, his actions took on a whole new meaning for me. What if the soldier actually believed he could manage to swim through the length of the English Channel despite his likely fragile mental and physical condition? Suddenly, conviction becomes delusion and you’re confronted with the true horror of “Dunkirk”: that war is human, is at once its greatest merit and its greatest tragedy. Tommy, Alex and Bernard sit there, without speaking a word or batting an eye, and watch the man disappear into the sea. Conviction or delusion, they understand either. It is a rare moment of quiet, although not bereft of the constant dread, in a film that doesn’t let you blink or breathe.
“Dunkirk” is relentless and unforgiving. In many ways it is like “Mad Max”. There is no relief, no break from the action. By the time it sinks in, it is over. But its execution achieves something very profound. Through the regular firing and bombing and drowning, “Dunkirk” seems to be more about people than it does about war. We all know the historical context of the film. Operation Dynamo and the evacuation of Dunkirk is one of the great stories from the second World War. But besides its feet planted firmly in history, “Dunkirk” does little to elaborate on the war itself. There is very little dialogue and almost none in its first half-hour (another similarity to “Mad Max”). It is never mentioned, either through on-screen text or unnecessary exposition, that it’s the Nazis who’re the bad guys, barring a fleeting mention of the German aircraft Heinkel. Of course, everyone knows who the enemy is and why there’s a war raging on. But, by the way of providing little context or commentary, Chistopher Nolan manages to speak so much more than words are capable of. It was the great Andrei Tarkovsky who truly believed in the visual language of films. He had little regard for dialogues and he let his films communicate with actions. That is why his contemplative films endure as masterpieces today. It is not to say that a dialogue-heavy or a chatty film is sub-standard. Just look at Quentin Tarantino’s work. But being able to tell a story without using many words is the true art of filmmaking. In “Dunkirk”, characters have faces but they don’t have names. (I could only find out the names of the three young men on the beach after searching online. They are rarely mentioned in the film). Apart from the three actors mentioned above, there is Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh. But there is no lead actor; no protagonist; no hero. There were 400,000 men on that beach, and the people we encounter seem like faces in the crowd. We see bravery and cowardice, but we don’t get to attribute it to one person. We see these traits as a product of war rather than a product of people. And even though we remember the faces we see, we hardly get to know them. There is no scene where a character talks about his family back home, his new wife, his newborn child who he is yet to see, or that he is a teacher back home. No. Even though such scenes have become a staple of war films to make the characters sympathetic, Nolan is having none of it. For him, “Dunkirk” is about survival, about getting home with whatever price one has to pay for it.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a film critic on Twitter about our expectations of “Dunkirk”. We were both wondering how Nolan would handle narrative in an epic war film. He would surely not subvert the genre like Tarantino (“Inglourious Basterds”). Would he do a Terence Mallick (“The Thin Red Line”) or a Steven Spielberg (“Saving Private Ryan”)? Or would he just do a Nolan? We both concluded that the latter would be the best possible outcome. And indeed, he didn’t disappoint. Yes, “Dunkirk” is a war epic. But not for a second it is not a Nolan film. Things aren’t as simple as they seem in one of those. “Dunkirk” plays with narrative and our perception of time in a very Nolan-esque way. I don’t want to give much away for anyone who has not yet seen the film, so I won’t elaborate. But simply told, “Dunkirk” plays out in three perspectives: land, water and air. Each is as breathtakingly beautiful as it is terrifying. Shot almost entirely on IMAX cameras (an unbelievable feat in itself), the film comes alive on a 70mm screen. From the textures on the helmets of the soldiers, to the weathered side of a Spitfire; the detail in every frame is stunning. And of course, the real magician is not the IMAX camera, it’s the man behind it. This is the second time Hoyte van Hoytema (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, “Her”, “Interstellar”) has collaborated with Nolan and the results are extremely rewarding. “Dunkirk” is one the best shot films you’ll see all year. It floats from dizzying heights of dogfights to the claustrophobic insides of drowning boats. It can be god-like grand and encompassing and unnervingly intimate within two shots. One moment, you’re riding on the back of a Spitfire; the other, you’re fighting for breathe in a sinking ship. The excellent sound design compliments the camera-work. You can feel the bullets whizzing by your ears and the dreaded wail of a bomber diving in for an attack makes you turn around and look above. And meshed with it, in the most organic way possible, is Hans Zimmer’s finest background score till date. Zimmer’s body of work is immense. But sadly, people mostly identify him for his collaborations with Nolan, particularly on “Inception”, which provided the template for the now infamous every-trailer-noise-ever (BRAAAMMMMMM). Many forget that it was him who scored “The Lion King”. With “Dunkirk”, Zimmer creates an urgent score, one that also accommodates the sound of a ticking clock (it was a wristwatch belonging to Nolan himself, actually). It is the most un-war score I’ve heard in a war film. There are no emotionally heavy string sections telling you how to feel. Zimmer aims to ensnare rather than evoke. And this is true for the film itself. “Dunkirk” never tries to manipulate you into feeling something, be it though its score or visuals. There are no intestines and guts lying around on the beach. No burning bodies and dismembered limbs. We all know war is violent and really don’t need films like the criminally overrated “Hacksaw Ridge” to remind us the same. There are people being shot and bombed in “Dunkirk” but we never see a drop of blood. And I think it serves a larger purpose than just to achieve a PG-13 rating. Nolan’s PG-13 ways in his recent films have did not gone down well with me. But this time, the absence of violent cues in the face of actual physical and psychological violence that takes place during its 1hr 46min runtime feels way more visceral. It is because of such restraint in all aspects of the film that the emotions that rush in towards the end carry weight and feel incredibly honest. It catches you off-guard, but the three perspectives tie up together neatly towards the end to provide an emotionally stirring finale. It is beautiful cinema that makes you gasp, let out a breath and say bravo!
A war film has almost become like a rite of passage in filmmaking; almost every great director goes through it. And, inexplicably (and probably unfairly), it becomes an acid-test of their stature. I already mentioned Mallick and Spielberg. Francis Ford Coppola had his “Apocalypse Now”. In case of Michael Cimino, “The Deer Hunter” became the film he was identified with. The incomparable Stanley Kubrick did it twice, with “Paths of Glory” and “Full Metal Jacket”. The former, I believe, is the finest of them all. So, naturally, when Nolan decided to do war, expectations were enormous. Nolan enjoys a near-mythic following among the masses, chiefly due to his take on the Caped Crusader. But it is his early work, cinephiles would agree, that truly earns him his stature. That the pressures of mainstream have somewhat diluted Nolan’s recent works and yet they remain good films is a testament to his craft. With “Dunkirk”, however, Nolan has made a film that will endure. Many are calling it his finest and some are calling it the greatest war drama of all time. And even though it is hard to justify such grand statements, I’d say this much: If Christopher Nolan were to stop making films today, “Dunkirk” would be the film he’ll be remembered for. Finest or not, it is undeniably his most powerful, most human film to date.