Nolan’s storytelling techniques elegantly guide audiences through a miraculous escape.
Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated war epic takes audiences through the desperate escape operation launched by British military and civilians as German forces pushed them out of France in June of 1940.
Right from the get-go, Nolan puts us in a tense firefight showing how quickly the Germans are approaching. The decision to not show the actual German soldiers, instead we only see their gunfire, perfectly captures the terrifying nature of their advance. This decision in the opening scene exemplifies the threat an invisible enemy that are quickly encroaching on British and French lines along the English Channel and establish the race against time. Speaking of the which, Hans Zimmer’s score enhances the atmosphere with its use of ticking clocks to remind the audience of on-coming German forces. The score is subtle throughout, but makes brilliant use of the ticking clocks and banging percussions in the heat of battle.
The pieces of propaganda dropping from the sky along with the unseen German soldiers picking off fleeing British and French soldiers from afar adds to the dreary, unpredictable atmosphere.
Minimalistic dialogue between the soldiers fortifies the atmosphere with the cornered army staring into their fates as they hopefully await their deliverance. Nolan’s direction makes use of visual storytelling through glances from the observant soldiers. Our lead character, Tommy (played by Fionn Whitehead) and his silent comrade Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) communicate via glances and whistles, attempting to escape the mainland by any means necessary. The two work together to get an injured soldier aboard a medical ship not because of some sense of duty, but as a means of escape. That sequence shows the dour straights the men on the beach were in. The pair’s attempts to escape plus images of soldiers fighting to get on evacuation ships depicts the desperation felt by the men on the beaches.
Meanwhile, Royal Air Force Pilots are dispatched to defend their medical ships and are engaged by the German Luftwaffe. Tom Hardy’s pilot character, Farrier, faces difficult decisions once his squad engages in a dogfight with German aircraft over the English Channel. Just as I had hoped in my preview, the dogfights are beautifully done, with the terse dialogue between the British pilots adding to the sense of pressure seen on the ground and at sea. There’s an urgency to the aerial mission as the soldiers on the ground complain about being picked off from the air.
I think the most surprising facet of this movie that works is the civilian crew we follow. Over the course of a day, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and his son’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) take their boat out to sea before the British Navy can requisition it. Rylance conveys the sense of honor that purveyed through the civilians as they went straight into battle to help preserve their nation’s freedom in his stoic expression. The bravery and patriotism shown by the three is not overly dramatic, rather it is seen as a necessity for prolonging the resistance of the British. This isn’t a “Michael Bay’s interpretation of Pearl Harbor” melodrama, this film has quick moments of patriotic reflection, but nothing close to the jingoistic flavor of some American war flicks.
Nolan’s non-linear storytelling can take a while to get used to, especially with some night scenes cutting to day scenes and vice versa, but proves to be incredibly effective as he overlays key scenes from land, sea, and air. Cutting back and forth between two tense scenes that affect each other later in the film doubles the effectiveness of the intensity and efficiently doles out meaningful plot points. It is especially clever to see action scenes from different days overlaid to show the affect they had on each other. Seeing the same moment of the battle from different perspectives conveys the interconnectedness of the struggle.
This film captures the feeling of futility throughout, with German aircraft taking pot shots at the helpless British infantry and slowly progressing in an invisible advance. It feels like the British are fish in a barrel for the Germans to take out on their way to conquering France.
I cannot omit how incredible the visuals are here. Nolan’s dedication to practical effects adds to the realistic atmosphere and authentic look of the times. According to IMDb, the crew requisitioned as many as 62 real naval destroyers to avoid using CGI. Also, over 1,500 extras were used to show the scale of the beach evacuation. The accuracy and authenticity of the film has even been validated by a 97-year-old veteran of the battle who discussed how it felt like he was there again.
Overall, I think this is one of the most reverent war films of the past decade and belongs in the conversation with Saving Private Ryan as one of the best war films of all time.
I give Dunkirk an…