by Iñaki Oñate
Review of Dunkirk (2017), directed by Christopher Nolan. UK/Netherlands/France/USA.
In 1998 Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan changed the way in which war was filmed. Desaturated photography, visceral and explicit violence, handheld/dirty camera movements, and a soundtrack capable of blowing your ears off. The initial Omaha beach assault scene could easily be catalogued as one of the greatest war sequences ever made in the history of film, if not indeed the greatest.
As it happens with all new forms, Spielberg’s depiction of a historical war became a standard. His aesthetic approach was overused and you could see every war documentary that came later on the History Channel looking like that. Now we’re getting close to the first quarter of the 21st century and a new movie had to come out and break the paradigm of how a war film should be made. Enter Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
An innovative film that demonstrates you can be powerful, evocative and engaging with a modest mise-en-scène, foregoing visceral violence and relying instead on the precise use of sound and imagery to make us feel the desperation for survival.
It’s a large ensemble piece of three stories that directly or indirectly intertwine around the evacuation of the beach of Dunkirk where British, French, Belgian and Canadian troops were trapped between the city and the beach, with the English Channel as their only way out. More than a quarter of a million souls had to endure the constant German aerial attacks for eight days with no apparent way a out.
This is a movie about waiting… waiting for the enemy while hoping for salvation. It’s a film that expresses the horror of war without showing any
explicit scenes of gore or bloodshed. It’s a film about a great historic event but articulated in a simple, short storyline. It’s a film about the sacrifice of youth, encarnated in cryptic and anonymous kids that run though the beach looking for a medium to escape. Nolan, as a storyteller, doesn’t care about who they are. He just wants you as a viewer to wonder: Will that character make it? Will he be able to get out of there?
Nolan’s film reinvents resources from classic epic war films such as The Battle of Britain, The Longest Day and Paths of Glory combined with a very original sense of unpredictability regarding the characters. You go along with them as if you were another young teenage soldier with dirty military leggins, sand in your hair and afraid of the bombs from the sky and the depth of the sea.
In an interview Kenneth Branagh, who portrays Commander Bolton in the film, described it as the perfect balance between two characteristics that define Nolan: a mathematical precision of the shapes and the forms of cinema and a certain kind of passion, like an earthy intuition of wanting to grasp human empathy. Nolan wanted the experience of the viewer to be as intense and as real as posible. For these reasons Dunkirk was shot in the real beach and many of the ships appearing in the film are the real ones that went to the rescue of those soldiers back in WWII. Even the Spitfire air combat sequences were shot in live-action with real military aircrafts.
Nolan knew he had upon his shoulders the obligation to deliver something great, for film depictions of Dunkirk are a British tradition. The first traceable movie about this historic episode is a short documentary made by the British Council called The Little Ships of England (1943), a sort of reportage about the civilian ships that went to rescue the soldiers. Dunkirk (1958), directed by Leslie Norman, was the first motion picture made about the evacuation and it was well-received by the general public. In the French Weekend at Dunkirk (1964) we see the drama from the French point of view as Julien Maillat (Jean Paul Belmondo) and his partners face the dilemma of whether to stay to fight or find a way to escape as the Germans close in from all directions.
For the post-war generations, Dunkirk was a well-established film topic and a necessary one for a generation of people who had been living out of rations for almost a decade. The myth of Dunkirk concerns the importance of ordinary people, in this case the sailors that went on to rescue the churchillian underdogs- the soldiers abandoned by their own royal force – and their courage and desperation.
The director of The Dark Knight (2008) has masterfully embraced the
cinematic tradition of this historic event and has introduced effectively this piece of world history and its myth to a new range of generations that don’t know or simply don’t care about it. Three stories, one that takes place on firm land, another one in the skies and the third one at sea.
Nolan came up with the story 25 years ago and was adamant about making an epic movie with a stripped-out narrative. You can feel that the tryptical structure of the film was mathematically planned. Athough the rythmn slows down a little bit in some passages of the structure, in the end you feel satisfied with the cinematic experience you went though.
Dunkirk is certainly an important echelon in the epic war film genre. In many ways it goes back to a more classical, subtle tradition of how to showcase war while in other aspects it pushes cinema forward. This movie is the proper masterpiece of a legitimate 21st century movie mastermind.
(Oh.. and as a sidenote: this film should be played LOUD!)
Iñaki Oñate / Writer (Quito, Ecuador – 1988) Iñaki resides in Buenos Aires, where he studied film directing at Universidad del Cine. His short films have been part of the official selection at the New York, La Habana and Cannes festivals. He’s currently developing his first feature film with his own independent production company, Undergofilms. He also works in music and art illustration.