Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a World War II film so expertly photographed, acted, structured, and edited that I was left a little in awe of the experience. It dramatizes Operation Dynamo, during which allied soldiers cut off and surrounded by advancing Germans were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, not just with the help of British destroyer ships but also hundreds of private boats commandeered by the British navy. Between May 26 and June 4 of 1940, over 330,000 soldiers were rescued. On the same token, 68,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, missing, or captured, and numerous British and French vessels were sunk.
This event was last dramatized for the screen in 1958 by Leslie Norman. His film, also called Dunkirk, was rather bittersweet, for he recognized that Operation Dynamo, otherwise known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, was both a victory and a defeat. Perhaps it helped that the film was made only eighteen years after the fact, which is to say it was fresher in everyone’s minds. It has now been seventy-seven years and obviously isn’t as fresh, but Nolan has nevertheless made a very compelling movie, in great part, I believe, because, like Norman, he too views what happened at Dunkirk bittersweetly – simultaneously a miracle and failure, the joy of lives saved tempered by the reality of lives lost.
Norman’s film was fairly straightforward, the vast majority of the action told from the perspectives of an English soldier behind enemy lines and a London-based journalist disillusioned by the eight-month period of complacency known as the Phoney War. Nolan’s film also relies on multiple perspectives, going the extra step of intentionally focusing on the land, sea, and air aspects of Operation Dynamo. This division is shown primarily through three characters: A British Army private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead); a mariner named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), who, on his private boat, sails with his two sons (Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan) from England to Dunkirk; and a fighter pilot named Farrier (Tom Hardy).
Nolan, unlike Norman, structures his film somewhat less conventionally. For example, while hardly dialogue-free, much of what’s said is buried under ambient noises, the bangs and explosions of battle, and characters speaking over one another during heated moments. Nolan often lets the visuals do the real talking. They practically scream at the top of their lungs when the aspect ratio changes from 2.35:1 to 1.85:1, the latter shot exclusively with IMAX cameras. To see these images projected at full frame is to be uncannily immersed, an experience at times wonderful, at times shocking, always powerful. The only way it would have been even more mind-blowing is if 3D had been paired with the IMAX.
Unlike typical war movies, in which we’re introduced to characters at home before they’re shipped off, this one not only begins in the middle of war but also hits the ground running. There’s also nary a moment when the tension isn’t thick. Sometimes, it’s evident in minor subplots, as when Mr. Dawson picks up a shellshocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) from the stern of a sunken boat, or when Tommy and a mysterious man silently try to avoid the watchful eyes of the British Army, for reasons I obviously can’t give away. Most of the time, it’s plainly because of the repeated air raids on the Dunkirk beaches, and the ships that are torpedoed and sunk, and the efforts of Farrier and a fellow pilot named Collins (Jack Lowden) to keep enemy fighters out of the skies.
The tension is maintained, in great part, because of the original score by Hans Zimmer, one of the rare scores that’s all buildup. As a soundtrack album, the vast majority of it would probably be unlistenable; when paired with the images, it’s one of the most effective scores of recent memory, the basest emotions evoked with expert precision. Zimmer has likely secured a lock on an Oscar nomination. So has cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. And editor Lee Smith. And Nolan himself, who not only directed the film but also wrote and co-produced it. I think he has also seen to it that the film as a whole will be recognized by the Academy. Dunkirk is one of the year’s best films.