I don’t often have the time (or bank account) to see movies in the theater. But I was pretty excited to be able to see an early 70mm screening of Christopher Nolan’s latest film Dunkirk. I would definitely see it in 70mm or even IMAX if you can. It’s visually stunning. Even more so, I came away feeling that Dunkirk is deeply resonant and thoughtful in its portrayal of war.
Every film about armed conflict and historical battles is a little different. They allow the director or writer to show off skills of historical accuracy, or tell a story that highlights heroes and national symbolism, or pop the hood on human nature and examine why people engage in violence at all.
Previous war films that I’ve seen have often been characterized by unapologetic gore and death, or the worship of self-sacrifice and patriotism, or a chess-like fixation on tactics and strategy. With Dunkirk, Nolan has done something more minimalist, more existential, more literal. Dunkirk is an up-close, personal account of the emptiness of war and the struggle to simply survive for another day.
By following three sets of characters, in a non-chronological weaving of their respective timelines, Dunkirk creates a feeling of disorientation in the audience like that of a shell-shocked soldier. Through the film’s nonlinear telling, a sense of time and order fades. You rarely know when a bullet, bomb, or torpedo is coming until it’s right on you. And Dunkirk not only shows it–it makes you feel it. It’s a rollercoaster of increasing intensity that is only occasionally alleviated for a fleeting moment. A simple piece of bread and jam after being pulled out of the water represents a brief taste of home, safety, and comfort. Until new bombardments ratchet up the danger and intensity again.
The sounds of the film are turned up to 11 and put you in the heart of the action. Every fly-by makes you want to duck. Every gunshot feels like it’s whizzing past your ear. Every tilting camera angle of a sinking ship nudges you to look for a way to get out and stay afloat. These are not moments for heroics. They’re for instinctual perseverance and leaning on the people around you to overcome the blasts and drowning depths.
Dunkirk is filled out and made even more felt by an excellently experimental Hans Zimmer score. With music as texture and just a few overt themes, Zimmer turns the intensity up and down in sync with the rising danger and brief moments of relief. A nearly constant stopwatch-like ticking conveys that time is always running out, while other instrumentals mimic the noises of fighter planes, ships, and munitions. A foundation of strings, synthesizers, and longing horns churn in the background. The melody of hope that appears late in the story is an intrusion of almost otherworldly warmth that washes over you like rays of purifying sun.
Dunkirk tightly fits it all together to depict the terror and disorientation of war. The primal strive to survive against ocean and machine. And the slight but tangible hope for escape and future comfort.
War is hell, as many have said. But Dunkirk perhaps depicts more of a purgatory–somewhere in-between heaven and hell. The Dunkirk beach is a stand-in for all of us trying to survive on this pale blue dot in a vast, dark universe. The twin forces of humans who’ve lost their humanity (the Nazis are symbolically faceless throughout the film) and an indifferent, wild planet constantly threaten to extinguish life and cause a permanent descent into darkness and meaninglessness.
But there is also the small glimmer of hope of making it out–making it home–if you can persevere. In Nolan’s worldview, it’s the industrious humanity of other people who come to the rescue rather than divine intervention. If we can make it another day together, maybe we will all eventually see the end of our existential desperation, and rest in the comfort of a heavenly home.