Dunkirk is, at its core, effective.
It effectively tells the story of the Battle of Dunkirk. It effectively drives home the feeling of desperation and survival of the Allied troops stranded on the French beach surrounded by Axis forces. It effectively drops you into most every scene and allows you to feel like you’re right in the thick of it all. And it does all of this by completely changing the template of war and historical movies as we know them.
For starters: it’s short. And while my impatience for overlong, overcomplicated plots and narratives (particularly when it comes to history films) should be noted, there’s another reason alongside that. While most every war and history film chooses to follow a character or set of characters on their own personal journey, Dunkirk mostly does away with that notion and simply lets the history of the thing be the main narrative.
It doesn’t throw away characters altogether, but instead of making us feel for the characters, Nolan attempts to make us feel like the characters. While the film boasts such names as Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy, it opts for allowing them to be just interesting enough that you like and relate to them, but not so interesting or driven by a personal narrative that you feel a disconnect from them to you. This makes every moment in the film a personal one – stressful moments are stressful to you and not just something you’re witnessing happening to somebody else. The few moments of relief scattered throughout leave you genuinely sighing before you realize you’re being hurled into more misfortune and poor circumstance. At the risk of sounding cliché, it actually makes you feel as though you’re there.
This is primarily because of the incredible sound design and cinematography of the film. Every sound cue and camera shot is used to its fullest effect, whether it be to help set or relieve tension, or magnify/minimize the scope of the current scene. I noticed one such sound cue going about ten minutes before its payoff came, and when it did I audibly gasped in the theater. Hans Zimmer’s score is masterfully constructed, as you’d expect, and the music effectively replaces the characters as what drives you to feel the way you’re supposed to be feeling. Instead of feeling tense because the characters on screen are tense, and instead of feeling relief when those same characters do, you do so because of how the music ascends, climaxes, and descends all in seamless waves of motion. Ultimately what these things culminate to is history set to an appropriate soundtrack, and it works incredibly well.
Visually, what I found particularly exceptional about Dunkirk was how it manages to capture scale both large and small. For every slow, panning shot of a British ship with a deck full of soldiers and wide-angle birds-eye shots of the ocean dotted with small ships, there are moments of claustrophobia and being crammed amongst the other soldiers. And while I appreciated the former, the latter felt much more satisfying and helped provide a better experience. Two moments in particular stood out: once at the very start when you realize just how little space the Allied forces have between them, the Axis forces, and the ocean, and another scene later that shows a character trying to escape a sinking ship. The use of light, tight spacing, and back to my first point, sound, have you much more on edge and invested than you might otherwise be, and they helped give the large, sweeping shots much more impact.
All of this is not to say, though, that the characters don’t have their moments. But because they’re so few and far between in an already short movie, they needed to manage to hit just the right chords to work. Thankfully, they do, and the movie is all the better for it. You feel Mark Rylance’s drive as his character sails his small ship toward the beach full of waiting soldiers, and while you don’t understand his motivation until much later (one of my favorite small moments in the film) you understand that he’s passionate about doing what he can to help. You feel Kenneth Branagh’s desperation as a commander in the face of an imminent threat with a beach full of helpless soldiers waiting for a miracle to come to them. You feel even more desperation with Fionn Whitehead as the nameless* infantryman simply trying to do anything to survive long enough to make it home. In fact, the only character you feel relatively disconnected to is Hardy’s, though even that works to good effect – feeling disconnected to the airman in the sky defending the soldiers on the beach makes you feel like one of those disconnected soldiers, not really sure where the air force is or why they aren’t helping at all, until a payoff finally delivers itself.
*according to IMDB his name is Tommy, though I never picked that up at any point in the actual movie.
These small moments matter, but are also scattered throughout the actual historical events, which is what makes Dunkirk so unique. It doesn’t lose itself in character narrative or have any point feel forced because it’s necessary for someone – everything is as it should be because of how it happened. I can only think of one particular moment that felt a little “classic war movie” and almost felt out of place, but for a movie that does so many things so differently and so well, one small gaffe can be overlooked.
All in all, Dunkirk changes the template of war and history movies by actually letting the history tell the story. And that’s something I hope Hollywood begins doing more of as soon as possible.