When director Leslie Norman completed and released his 1958, 135 minute epic war film, Dunkirk, the time from the actual event was a mere eighteen years. Most audiences in those British theatres were only too aware of the story’s time-frame, the causes, and the outcome. Many were even survivors of the horror, those who had actually waited there, on the beaches, wondering if they’d ever make it home, fearing for their lives. And worse, the war had hardly begun.
Audiences for Christopher Nolan’s 2017 considerably shorter 104 minute version will be different. Other than scholars of world wars and those with a keen interest in historical wartime events, most audiences, particularly American and those outside of European countries, will be aware of little. Other than having perhaps once heard of the French town, they’ll know nothing of Operation Dynamo, what it was, why it occurred, and why the Dunkirk evacuation was often called the Miracle of Dunkirk. It’s part of history, and a vastly important one, but it’s not their history. It would take a further fourteen months until the United States entered the war. After watching Nolan’s recreation of the drama, as far as the facts go, they’ll remain knowing little.
But 2017 audiences will have witnessed something uniquely different that the film in 1958 could never have presented. Nolan has little interest in delivering a story – facts, figures, times and dates have no part of this Dunkirk – rather, the writer/director has created something astonishingly visceral; how you react will be personal; no one else in the theatre will experience it in quite the way you will.
There’s no big picture, no time establishing introduction, and no perspective of where or at what point you are in the war. There are simply the events of those nine days that began on May 26 and ended June 4, 1940, seen almost exclusively from the point of view of the allied forces, the men stranded on the beaches and harbors of the French town, waiting for rescue while the enemy attacked and systematically picked them off as though they were target practice. When the film begins, four of those nine days may have already passed, but it’s difficult to tell, and Nolan is explaining nothing.
The film is told from three angles, and they come with chapter headings that will only make sense if you’re already aware. The first is 1. The Mole. One Week. It’s the point of view of the stranded infantry on the beach. The second is 2. The Sea. One Day. It’s the evacuation at sea where the Royal Navy on English shores commandeered civilian boats and small fishing vessels to assist in the channel crossing rescue. And the third is 3. The Air. One Hour. It’s above, among the clouds, where spitfires helped combat air attacks from German planes. The week, day and hour references indicate the length of time those events occurred, yet Nolan mixes them together in a fragmented time-line that jumps from moment to moment, and in no particular order other than to heighten dramatic events to their maximum potential. Events that occur in the daytime will intercut with those in the nighttime; things that happened within an hour begin and end at the same time as events that lasted a week.
After spending what must have felt like an eternity standing in orderly lines, there on the beaches, looking out across the English Channel, hoping to catch sight of a vessel coming to pick them up, enemy planes fly in from above, and fire. The men, mostly boys, scatter, diving for cover. “Where’s the bloody air-force?” demands one army soldier after wiping the sand from his face. It’s one of the first lines uttered in a film that has little dialog.
Other than brief conversations between officers, where Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton tells another office to think again about loading the wounded on boats – “One stretcher takes the space of seven standing men” – or when soldiers huddled together below deck in a beached trawler argue among themselves, dialog throughout is at a minimum. Instead, Nolan recreates events through action where an occurrence is witnessed from the point of view of the young men involved. A spitfire crashes onto the channel’s surface, and the impact is experienced in a way rarely, if ever, seen on film; we’re there, right there with the plane as it hits the water, and we grimace and brace ourselves in the same way the pilot does. When soldiers, covered in oil, swim for their lives, then are forced underwater while the channel above is set aflame, we’re with them, under the water, looking up, unable to surface. The moment is one of absolute terror.
Nolan’s Dunkirk may not be the film you were expecting. Despite many extraordinary compositions and breathtaking character view points, courtesy of Hoyte van Hoytema’s outstanding cinematography, the fractured story-telling style may still keep you at arm’s length, even though Nolan’s ultimate aim is for the fully, you-are-there, immersive approach. Up until now, his inspiration has mostly come from comic-book or sci-fi fantasy. Dunkirk is Nolan’s first, factual movie based on historical events, but while there are many remarkable and certainly inspirational moments, the film is not a complete success. It’s a cinematic jigsaw, full of startling, individual pieces that don’t always unite. Because of the altered time-line approach, many will be confused, often unnecessarily so. It stops a good film from becoming what you hope will be a great one.
Audiences will have several different presentations of the film from which to choose. The majority can see Dunkirk as a widescreen feature in regular, digital theatres; then there’s the widescreen 70mm print which will have a special presentation in select city theatres capable of projecting real film with sprockets; and finally there’s IMAX, where the giant and practically squared screen will fill out to all corners. The choice of viewing is yours, depending on availability and personal budget. Mine would be in 70mm.
The press showing was in IMAX, and while the image is certainly crystal clear, the sound is ridiculously high. Nolan often engages in a soundtrack where the score swells to an overwhelming level, but here, composer Hans Zimmer’ s lengthy, sustained bass line is so powerful, with IMAX you feel it in your chest. Once again, even with the music, director Nolan goes for the visceral. But it presents a problem. Often, the sound is in danger of smothering what little dialog there is. Dunkirk deserves a second viewing, but once you’ve taken in the IMAX experience, it should be where the score enhances the visual rather than drowning it. A true appreciation can be difficult when the presentation is more a cinematic side-show than a performance; you’re too overwhelmed by an unrelenting surge of sight and sound to make an honest judgment.
In truth, Nolan’s Dunkirk is really an art-house film with a mainstream, tent-pole budget. There are amazing images – the sight of those small, civilian vessels and pleasure boats on the horizon can’t help but stir emotions and fill you with pride – but, despite the early talk of Oscars, not everyone will take to the style, or be satisfied.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 104 Minutes Overall rating: 8 (out of 10)