Movie Review: Dunkirk

by thethreepennyguignol

All genres morph and change in tone and attitude based on the era they happen to be made in. With almost every nation having it’s own complex and constantly evolving relationship to militarism, war, and how those things fit with the construction of their respective national identities, the war movie genre is one of the best ways to translate the attitude of the era they’re made in.

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Wars films of the fifties and sixties often made attempts to reclaim the horrors of the first and second World Wars with triumphant glorification, while movies of the seventies and eighties unflinchingly stared down the brutality of conflicts like the Vietnam War as decent war reportage made them unavoidable.  There’s always a market for films like, say, American Sniper and 13 Hours –  with the conflicts they depict so recent and ripe for forming specific narratives around; because their place in the consciousness of most audiences is still fallow, filmmakers are more readily able to project their opinions of them on to the movies they make. Basically, it’s nearly impossible to make an apolitical war movie that casts no judgement on war in some way. But with a film like Christopher Nolan’s latest release, Dunkirk – revolving, unsurprisingly, around the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 – things are a little different.

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The film is set in World War Two, a conflict that has a complicated relationship with cinema in the last thirty years; it’s been explored extensively both from a civilian standpoint (Schindler’s List, The Pianist), from the point of view of those in power (Downfall), from a soldier’s one (Saving Private Ryan, Fury) and whatever the fuck Tarantino was trying to do with Inglorious Basterds. World War Two has been explored extensively in movie form, to the point where it almost feels like an apolitical choice to set your film around, because it’s been interrogated from every angle and found to be, as far as cinema is concerned, A Bad Thing. Yes, these films often contain glimmers of hope, but perhaps more than any other war movie sub-genre, modern films about World War Two are often lacking in any kind of glory or triumphant final act. Making movies about World War Two has become shorthand for depressing, serious, worthy cinema.

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Which makes Nolan’s choice to set a film around the evacuation of Dunkirk even more interesting. Because, in British history, the evacuation of Dunkirk is seen as one of the great triumphs of the Second World War. It’s referred to as “the miracle of Dunkirk”; it’s often cited as an example of the Great British Spirit, of proof that as a nation we can come together to do what’s right at the end of the day. As a concept in and of itself, it doesn’t seem to lend itself to the narrative of inescapable badness that surrounds World War Two. And yet.

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Nolan’s Dunkirk, more than it is anything else, is a relentless movie. From the opening moments where we see a collection of British soldiers gunned down on the streets of Dunkirk, the lone survivor left to wander the beaches strewn with bodies and subject to random and exhausting bombings from German aircraft. There is death at every turn in this movie – drownings, shootings, bombings, torpedos, hapless souls throwing themselves from ships only to be crushed between the dock and the boat. For a film as bloodless as this one is (it’s a 12A), it doesn’t shy away from the exhaustingly constant presence of death for one second over it’s near two-hour runtime. In the background, there’s an almost constant ticking, an underlining of time running short for the dozens who will die violent deaths on the beaches at Dunkirk. There is, perhaps, one triumphant moment in the entire movie: soldiers on the beach cheer as dozens of civilian boats from Britain appear on the horizon, the music swelling in the background, only for the next shot to be Cillian Muprhy’s shell-shocked and utterly traumatised soldier cowering on the deck of a ship at the thought of returning to Dunkirk once more. Even the final shot, with a pair of soliders we’ve followed throughout the movie actually making it back home alive to find they’re being hailed as heroes, doesn’t hesitate to remind us (with a reading from a speech from Winston Churchill) that the war and the slaughter is far from over. For a movie that surrounds an event that’s ostensibly one of Britain’s great triumphs as a nation during the Second World War, Dunkirk barely gives itself a moment of relief or release. And I think that’s what makes it so brilliant.

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For my money, Dunkirk is by far Nolan’s best movie precisely because it bucks the path I was sure it was going to take. With Nolan’s penchant for over-explaining and heavily underlining his often simplistic themes and ideas (see: Michael Caine churning out Dylan Thomas quotes every quarter-hour in Interstellar), and with both the story of the Dunkirk evacuation and World War Two as a whole holding such a specific place in the national and international consciousness when it comes to storytelling, I expected Dunkirk to absorb both those narratives. World War Two is bad, but the evacuation of Dunkirk is triumphant and good. Instead, it fits the story of Dunkirk as an extension of the relentless violence of the war and finds flickers of humanity and goodness in specific characters as opposed to Britain as a whole. It acknowledges national identity as part of the cause of these events (with nods to the arbitary divides it throws up in a subplot involving a French soldier) and refuses to allow national identity, in the form of the Great British Spirit, to be the answer to it. It’s political in it’s condemnation of the war, presented through those sometimes hard-to-watch acts of violence, terror, and desperation, but at the same time rejects the politicised narrative that surrounds Dunkirk; it’s complex and difficult and interesting and by far the most challenging work Nolan has ever produced.

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Beyond that, it’s just a really well put-together movie. The action sequences toe the line carefully between being interesting and engaging to watch without letting the audience get swept away in the excitement of them and forgetting their impact, with most of them reading more like something cribbed from a horror movie than a Michael-Bay-esque thrill ride. A talented cast allows the characters to be sketched in with a few broad strokes without leaving the film feeling empty, with the standouts being a devastatingly broken Cillian Murphy and a stoic but compassionate Mark Rylance (since I know you’re interested, yes, Harry Styles is in this, and yes, he’s actually pretty good). Nolan has never been leaner here, with nothing in this movie that doesn’t need to be; he’s juggling three seperate stories (one told in the air, one on land, and one on the sea) told in non-linear form and somehow keeps everything together without having to agressively underline his point as he is wont to do. The direction is gorgeous and not too indulgent, with the movie swooping between the eerie emptiness of the sky and the suffocating claustrophobia of a sinking ship with ease.

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Dunkirk, as you can probably tell from the length of this review, is a movie that I found really interesting. As blockbusters go, it’s one of the thinkers of this summer, and if you’re looking for something that’s accessible and engaging without being dumbed-down or stripped of interesting ideas, this is the place to start, even if, like me, you’re not a fan of Nolan’s other work. It might not be the best war movie ever made, but for my money, it’s well up there – and for that alone, it deserves a watch.

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