Rethinking Dunkirk: A Movie Review

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Nominated for eight Oscars, winner of three, Dunkirk may be the most debated movie of 2017. Abandoning the typical war movie plotline, the film and its director and writer, Christopher Nolan, have received criticism, praise, critique, and awards. Take a look into the argument that has both critics and moviegoers buzzing.

Nolan’s latest motion picture depicts the events of Operation Dynamo, the rescue of a cornered British Army carried out by British civilians in World War II. The Brits had been pursued to the northern edge of France and found themselves trapped by German forces with little hope for liberation. Nearly 400,000 British soldiers stood on the beach at Dunkirk and awaited their almost certain destruction. Despite the importance of context, Nolan cares little for the development of or impact on World War II itself. Instead, Nolan focuses on the individuals and the present situation on the beach, at sea, and in the air. Within four minutes of the film, the stage is set with the Army surrounded, isolated, and desperate. The soldier followed throughout the film finds his way to the beach almost immediately which sets up a two-hour clamber for safety and hope. Dunkirk depicts war specifically by its consequences at the ground level: the experience of those subjected to it. In this portrayal of personal desperation and survival, Nolan flexes his movie-making muscle with signature twists and use of cinematographic tools that has stirred the world of film.

The movie is not only told from one soldier’s perspective. It follows three storylines: soldiers on the beach, civilians on the sea, and pilots in the air. In classic Nolan fashion, there is another wrinkle: each storyline follows a different span of time. The story of the soldiers on the beach takes place over the course of a week, the voyage of the civilians in one day, and the flight of the pilots in one hour. All three perspectives obviously only have a single two hour movie to operate in and thus all transpire at different speeds throughout the film. What may seem like a repeat in the storyline is simply the same image from a different point of view and because of the different view, a different timeline. This tactic illuminates to the audience the uncertainty and complexity of war as it is felt. War is never straightforward, well organized, or compartmentalized. This ductility of time is a Chris Nolan staple, as shown by his other hits Memento, Interstellar, and Inception. He continues to refuse the notion that a chronological story is the best way to convey motion picture. Whether you prefer it or not, Nolan continues to bend the public’s expectation of time and with that, demand the viewer’s attention.

Nolan taps into the fad of minimalism and brings it to film not to appeal but with purpose. Every aspect of the movie is minimalized from dialogue to character appearances to color schemes. Between a blue sea, a grey sky, and brown uniforms, there is little attention drawn to the beauty of northern France or individual expression besides emotion. There were even talks in the development stages of having no dialogue at all. Christopher Nolan wants no distractions while considering the point of the film.

While almost every war movie is a struggle of good and evil, Dunkirk pursues a different message: when everything is stripped away and hope is all we have, who are we? What goes through the head of a human being with no society, no structure, and no plan? Who are we when all distractions of everyday life are minimized and nothing matters besides survival? And we saw, in the movie and in real life, the rescue put on by civilians. We saw soldiers helping soldiers get home. We saw people coming to save their fellow person without asking their story or whether they deserved it. We saw people helping people unconditionally. This war movie is not about a winner, it is about people. Love or hate the atypical style, Nolan executed it with excellence. He engaged a world that rarely stops to “rescue” one another with a challenge to understand ourselves so that we will help one another unconditionally when the time comes.

The film ends with a pilot, looking out over the English Channel. As his plane burns, so does his hope of getting home. The sun sets but the pilot is looking on a world where we, the general public, the average joes, will set sail on an uneven sea for the sake of our fellow person. 

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