Review: Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has been making a lot of headlines recently, but the truth is that I had wanted to see it since my first glimpse of the trailer months ago. Last Wednesday night I finally got my chance. We did have to travel to Norwalk, Connecticut, to see the IMAX 70mm version, but everything I had read said it was worth it. (Before diving into this, I should note that I read my friend Kevin’s review while in the process of writing this review, so I will be responding to a few of his points here; these bits will make more sense if you read his review first.)
A lot has already been written about this film, so I’m not sure how much I can add to the mix in terms of analysis; I think the most I can hope to do in this review is to talk about my own reaction to and feelings about the film. That being said, it makes sense to start with a quick overview. Nolan’s epic takes a tripartite approach to the subject, dividing the narrative between land (the mole—not a reference to a spy, but to the pier that juts out from the beach at Dunkirk), air, and sea. The division of the narrative is not only spatial, though; the action on the beach takes place over a week’s time, the action at sea takes place over the course of a day, and the action in the air plays out over a single hour. Yet Nolan cuts back and forth between these places and times in such a way as to give the impression that they are all happening at the same time, even though they only converge in reality at the climax of the film. Dunkirk is straightforward about this artifice; the first scene in each thread of the film is announced by a title card that informs the audience of both the place and the duration of time covered. Basically, Nolan inform us up front that he is less interested in telling a traditional, linear narrative than he is in exploring the emotions and psychology of war. Rather than a novel, Nolan gives us a symphony.
The big talking point about Dunkirk is that it was mostly shot in IMAX—I say “mostly” because only about 70 percent or so was shot in IMAX, while the rest was shot at a traditional wide-screen ratio. I knew this going into the film, and I knew that this meant that roughly 25-30% of the film was going to be letterboxed, but in the actual watching of the film I failed to notice a single instance of transitioning between ratios. This is no doubt due in large part to the skill of the editor, but I also think I was so immersed in the film that all I saw was the art, not the artifice.
The question, though, is whether it is worth seeing the film in IMAX. I obviously haven’t seen it in the non-IMAX format, so it’s impossible to make any sort of comparison. However—and I will go into this in more detail later, I think it is safe to say that, yes, the IMAX is worth it. Dunkirk is a film about vast expanses: beach, sea, and sky. The IMAX format captured all of these expanses perfectly, and Nolan filmed them in such a way that they were not merely empty spaces but almost specula mentis, or mirrors of the mind. The beach shots brought home how exposed the troops were to attack by air, and the sea felt like an almost impossible obstacle. Perhaps some of the most exciting scenes for me were the dogfights, which cut between shots of planes against the vast sky and claustrophobic shots of the interior of Spitfire cockpits (in retrospect, fitting an IMAX camera inside a Spitfire cockpit must have been quite a feat, but at the time I didn’t think about the technicalities).
For as impressive as the visuals were, though, what we as an audience heard was almost as important as what we saw. Gunfire and explosions seemed incredibly loud, and Hans Zimmer’s relentless soundtrack kept the tension high throughout the film. Zimmer doesn’t really give us anything new here—my brother, a musician, noted that the soundtrack was very “Dark Knighty,” and I have to agree—but I still found it effective for the most part. And although I may not have noticed much of the visual artifice in the film for being too engrossed in it, there was one bit of audio artifice that I clued in to right away: Shepard tones. A Shepard tone is a tone that overlays multiple tones, each an octave apart. These tones rise, but the upper tone fades out as the lower tone fades in, so it sounds like an eternally rising tone. It’s a bit tricky to explain, so it’s probably better to just listen to it. That website, myNoise, describes it as “taking sandpaper to your nerves,” and I have to agree. (Also, myNoise is just a really cool site in general, so check it out the rest of it when you’re done here!) These tones, along with a driving beat punctuated by incessant ticking, keep your heart racing and your knuckles white. Is it artifice? You bet. But it’s also very effective, and I don’t think the film would have been the same experience without it. (In fairness to the “old dog, old tricks” crowd, Nolan has made liberal use of this artifice in previous films, so it is not something new and fresh.)
Finally, there is the temporal aspect of the film. As I mentioned above, Dunkirk weaves together not only three different spaces, but three different periods of time, making it seem as if events that took place at different times were taking place simultaneously. It is an interesting choice, and I wondered going in whether it would be distracting. It turns out that it wasn’t distracting at all. We get to see the same scenes from different points of view, which is always interesting, but in Dunkirk I was fascinated by the massive shifts in emotional and psychological distance. For example (hopefully without giving too much away here), we see a ship go down from the perspective of a Spitfire pilot, and the scene feels tragic but quite distant. When we see that same scene from the perspective of the soldiers on the sinking ship, though, it is frantic and chaotic. Writing it out like that, I guess it sounds rather obvious, but the effect while watching the film was impressive. And Nolan weaves the different threads of the story together in such a way as to maintain the tension even when we’re being shown something we’ve already seen from a different perspective.
Up to this point, I’ve been trying to talk about the film without getting into spoiler territory. If you haven’t seen the film yet and were just wondering whether it is worth your time (and, for some reason, my opinion is what you needed to push you over the top), now is the time to stop reading and go see the film, because I do recommend it (although maybe scroll down to the penultimate paragraph for some caveats and extra explanation). From here on out I am going to talk spoilers, because there are certain scenes and certain aspects of the film that I really want to talk about, but which I am glad I got to experience fresh while watching the film. So, without further ado, here come some spoilerific comments.
I noted above that Zimmer’s score, while perhaps not fresh and new, was pretty effective at maintaining the tension of the film. There was one scene, though, where this was not the case. Just before the fleet of small vessels appeared, Kenneth Branagh’s naval commander is standing on the pier and looking out over the ocean as the score flays our nerves. The moment he spots the vessels, though, the score transitions to a more traditional, triumphant piece. I honestly have no recollection of this music at all, other than that I knew it was supposed to feel triumphant. How it actually felt, though, was deflating. I’m not sure if this was intentional or not, because this is not actually the climax and denouement of the film—the actual climax is yet to come, and once that crisis is resolved we are spared any hokey victory music. So it is possible that this was an attempt to provide the audience with a false sense of relief to make the coming crisis (the appearance of a German bomber). On the other hand, it could just be possible that Zimmer tried to insert a truly triumphant moment into the score and simply failed. Whatever the case, the moment felt very incongruous to me, and the score actually diminished the emotion I might have otherwise felt at the appearance of the small vessels.
I carried on quite a bit above about the beauty of the IMAX presentation, and I do indeed believe that IMAX is the way to go if you want to see Dunkirk, but I thought it was worth mentioning here that—despite psychological impact of seeing the vast expanses of earth, sky, and sea in such a format—the single most tense moment of the film for me was actually quite claustrophobic. During a scene in the “mole” location, a number of Allied soldiers are huddled in the hold of a beached fishing trawler, waiting for the tide to come back in so they can escape. Suddenly, a loud clang rings out and a bullet hole appears in the hull, followed shortly by two more holes. The soldiers scramble frantically around the hold, never knowing where the next shot will come from, or if it will be the last thing they hear. When the tide does come in, they desperately try to plug up the holes to keep the ship afloat, all while new holes appear as bullets barely miss them. For me, this scene was far more tense and stressful than any of the scenes of soldiers scrambling for cover on the beach.
There is another element here worth mentioning, though, and that is the fact that we never actually see the bullets—we just see the holes they leave behind. In fact, throughout the entire film, we never even see the Germans (except toward the very end, when Tom Hardy’s heroic RAF pilot is capture by a few out-of-focus blurs that are only barely recognizable as enemy soldiers). This is obviously a deliberate choice made by Nolan, as is another choice that has gotten a lot of attention: the choice to make the film entirely bloodless. Soldiers are hit and killed, but we never see any blood. My friend Kevin calls this “unforgivable for a war movie,” because “a good war movie … should portray the sheer horror of war.” I agree with this criterion, although I’m not sure that blood is necessary to meet it. I mention the lack of blood alongside the lack of visible enemies because I think they are related; they are both a result of Nolan’s decision regarding exactly how he would portray the horror of war.
I won’t deny that seeing the visceral human consequences of war is indeed horrifying. I have never personally witnessed them myself, and I hope I never have to. But I don’t think a graphic depiction of those visceral human consequences is necessary to portray the effects of war on the human psyche. I think part of the reason the scene in the fishing trawler was so tense for me was not only that it was claustrophobic—that there was no escape—but that death could visit at any moment and you wouldn’t even see it coming. I said above that we never see the Germans. This is true—but we do see their weapons: the Messerschmitt fighters and the Stukas raining down terror from above, a torpedo hissing through the water toward a helpless evacuation ship. War has been dehumanized in order to portray its inhumanity. It may seem as if I am engaging in some semantic sleight of hand here, but this makes sense to me. Now, is this the best way of depicting the horror of war? I’m not sure, to be honest. But I thought it was effective.
Since we are talking about things unseen, I suppose I should mention one more thing before wrapping up: the treatment of the French in the film. You would be forgiven for reading some of the comments about the film and thinking that the French were written out entirely, but this is not the case. We see French troops holding the line against the Germans at the beginning of the film, and Kenneth Branagh’s naval commander elects to remain behind at the end to oversee the evacuation of the French. It’s also worth noting, though, that attitude of the British toward the French is not portrayed in the most flattering light: French soldiers are denied access to British vessels, and in the fishing trawler scene a French soldier who has taken the uniform of a dead British soldier (“Gibson”) is accused of having killed that soldier. If anything, this portrayal only contributes to the message of how cruel human beings can be to each other in the most trying of times. All that being said, were I French, I would probably be a bit miffed at how my nation’s heroic soldiers were portrayed in the film.
So, to wrap up, I would say that Dunkirk is not a conventional war film. If you go into it expecting one, you may end up being disappointed. It feels to me more like an exploration of the psychology of war, or how war affects the human psyche. Our barometer for this is Cillian Murphy’s “shivering soldier.” It’s telling that, of all the major characters in the film, his is the only one that doesn’t have a name—he is a cipher. All we know is that he is the (presumably) only survivor of a British ship sunk by a U-boat; we don’t see what happened to him or what he went through. We only see the aftermath, and the aftermath is a man shattered by the horror of war to such an extent that, as Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson notes, he will probably never be himself again.
I think that Christopher Nolan had a very specific vision in mind for Dunkirk, a very specific film that he wanted to make. If you wanted to see something new from Nolan (as I believe Kevin did), you may be disappointed. I happen to be a fan of Nolan, and I enjoyed what he put on screen here. You could argue that I am being somewhat uncritical in accepting a typical Nolanesque treatment of the subject, and you may be right. I’m not sure how far I am willing to go, though, in praising the film. For example, is Dunkirk Nolan’s best film yet, as many critics are claiming? Probably not. There are other Nolan films that I think I enjoyed more and that have more staying power with me (The Prestige, Inception, and Dark Knight spring immediately to mind), and I am not sure how much of my experience of Dunkirk is tethered to the format I saw it in. The IMAX 70mm format with surround sound was intense and immersive; will I have the same reaction to the film when I catch it on cable one night, years down the road? I can still watch Inception on DVD and enjoy it for what it is, but will the same hold true for Dunkirk? I think it will still be a good film, but I don’t think it will be nearly as effective.
What does this all mean? Well, I could segue here into a discussion of the viability of relying on certain theatrical formats, but my thoughts on that are embryonic at best. I guess I would just say that if you are planning on seeing Dunkirk, if it is at all possible you should try to see it in IMAX 70mm—even if you only get to have the experience once.