Dunkirk. What a great word. I’d never heard of the battle until recently; it sounds made up. I love the way Mark Rylance says it in his sweet civilian vessel headed to pick up stranded ally soldiers in the throes of World War II. “Where are we going?” Cillian Murphy wants to know, and Rylance ominously replies: “Dunkirk.” Light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin. My soul. Dun-kirk.
I didn’t want to see this movie because what happens in war is terrible. And there are never any women in war movies, I feel left out. Nevertheless, Christopher Nolan has made a motion picture. He’s the man behind some of my favorites: The Dark Knight Trilogy (the only superhero films I’ve ever truly loved) and a movie everyone continues to underreact about called The Prestige. He’s so good that even half-failures like Interstellar are interesting. Putting on shoes and using my free ticket voucher to experience his latest vision on opening weekend seemed like the least I could do.
The film begins on an eerily quiet street traversed by a few disparate soldiers as paper flyers from the enemy flit about in the wind around them. (Ordinarily I hate trailers, but this one doesn’t give away much and it will show you what I’m talking about; have a look.) In that very first shot, I know I haven’t made a mistake coming here. The color palette is dreadful and perfect—contrast up, saturation down. The quiet is deliberate and it means everything, so SHOUTOUT TO THE PIECE OF SHIT MOVIE GOER IN THE AISLE IN FRONT OF ME WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS THE PERFECT TIME TO MANIACALLY CRINKLE AROUND HIS CANDY WRAPPER LIKE A POMPOM. BY ALL MEANS, DUDE, ELEVATE THE EXPERIENCE FOR EVERYONE WITH YOUR GODDAMN SNACKS.
At 106 minutes, this is mercifully among Nolan’s shortest films to date. Tragedy (or at the very least, uncertainty) punctuates nearly every moment, and we can only take so much of that. Much has been made of the story’s three part structure: We’ve got three separate events working on different timelines brought together to make one cohesive story. It’s not that complicated. He’s delineated each with title cards and duration and it works fine.
First, there are the stranded soldiers on the beach waiting for ships back to England. Home is just beyond the horizon, but it’s not that simple because they’re under heavy German fire. (Do we ever even see the enemy in this movie? Not a lick of spoken German in the whole picture. What an expert way to sidestep any complicated feelings we might have with regards to “us versus them.”) The soldiers are standing in line waiting for ships, some of them for literally a week. Finally, they board a vessel that’s immediately downed by the enemy, back into the water we go: explosion, fire, boom, abandon ship! And so on. It’s exhausting and upsetting just watching it, and here we are invited to imagine how they feel. There are a few women on board these ships, too: brave, friendly nurses handing out supplies and nurturing words. I appreciated that a lot. I’d have liked to be the one to pass out bread and blankets.
The second story involves the aforementioned civilian vessels that have been called upon as reinforcement, epitomized here by Rylance, his son and his son’s friend, who’s hopped aboard at the last moment in order to really do something with his life. Rylance as Captain is compassionate, brave and wise. The very heart and soul of the movie—he’s the father every good person deserves.
For the third story, we have three fighter pilots overhead with enough fuel for one hour. Chief among them is my #1 crush, Thomas Hardy, and get this: He’s got a fighter pilot mask over his face for nearly the whole goddamn movie. Once again, we see only his concerned, furrowed eyes, such as with Bane, such as in Mad Max—is this a cruel joke?? (If this keeps up, I fear it will become for me a terrible fetish. “Sorry honey, I can’t cum unless you put this mask over your mouth.”) I’m worried because Hardy’s a big star, but he’s listed like fifth in the credits, and that’s my boyfriend up there! I fear he’ll get shot down immediately.
Nolan’s precisely-paced war nightmare really runs us through the ringer with trials and fears, hopes dashed by tragedy, then more hope, then peril, again and again and again. Death lurks at every turn of the screw; Seriously, the movie’s scarier than Annabelle. Who are these idiots on Rotten Tomatoes giving the picture a negative review? I invite them to go back and revisit Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor in remembrance of what an actual pile of garbage looks like.
Someone somewhere must have mentioned something about Spielberg’s influence, and I suppose they’re not wrong. These beach scenes will remind you of Saving Private Ryan‘s beaches of Normandy, but Nolan improves on the vision. In Dunkirk, we’re not hammered over the head with 20 uninterrupted minutes of ironic soldier deaths. A little carnage goes a long way when it’s punctuated with sweeping money shots of thousands of soldiers on an expansive, haunted beach. You don’t experience the misery in the misery—fucking duh—you feel it in the spaces in between.
Dunkirk would be nothing without Hans Zimmer’s score, which is mean and scary and true. Imagine soldiers on the verge of drowning under deck as the violent strings get faster and faster. Remember how you felt as the music sped up when you and Tails were under water in “Sonic the Hedgehog?”
“Nolan!” I thought. “This is so good, please don’t disappoint me with swelling sentimentality later!” Anyway, of course he does. Nolan is not Aronofsky. At the end of the day, he makes PG-13 movies for the masses because he wants to be liked. For example, Kenneth Brannaugh‘s a general or something. When the civilian ships roll in, his eyes well up and we’re treated to trite orchestral moaning that stands in total contrast to every measured, perfect moment that’s come before. So long as the tears stay in his eyes, he’s moved by patriotism. If the tears roll down his cheeks, he’s a fag. It’s a fine line.
This movie made me feel pointless and stupid. What have I done with my life? It is utterly devoid of any real adventure or consequence. But what are war movies for if not to make you feel insignificant and terrible?