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Dunkirk (2017); And an Ode to the Mastery of Filmmaking

August 15, 2017

It’s fascinating that we keep engaging in war despite nearly a century of war movies being made. You’d think seeing the horrors of battle—oozing blood, dismembered limbs, psychological torture— repeatedly mapped out on screens would be enough to make us all nauseous by the very notion of war. But after watching Dunkirk, I was reminded that not all war films are created equal. There are various languages in which they speak and in a multitude of ways in which we interpret them. Some are bold, psychological experiments of how war affects people (Full Metal Jacket, Johnny Got His Gun). Others tend to be virtual forms of propaganda pushing subjective, often xenophobic viewpoints (Black Hawk Down, Top Gun, basically any war film from the 1940s and 1980s). Then there are the cinematically intense films cloaked in artistry that usually highlight the absurdity and folly of war (Wings, All Quiet on the Western Front, Platoon).

In my personal venn diagram of exceptional war films, an outstanding one would blend anti-war sentiment with cinematic artistry. I never thought Christopher Nolan would be capable of entering either of these realms because his movies relay his technically-minded filmmaking style, but with Dunkirk he manages to partially slip through. Dunkirk isn’t the perfect war film nor is it the prototype of an anti-war film but it succeeds at being a clever, historical account of what was while illuminating the ridiculousness of what is in war. Whatever your opinion of Nolan may be now that he is over-saturated in the sphere of pop culture, you can’t deny that he’s responsible for some of the most renowned cinematic marvels since the turn of the century. I’ve always considered his storytelling abilities rough around the edges as some of his scripts allow for clumsy and dull moments in his films, especially under the scrutiny of multiple viewings.

A little of that redundant clunkiness is present in Dunkirk, but these moments are salvaged by Nolan’s immersive attention to detail and exceptional skill in creating a mood. Dunkirk unfolds in choppy sequence weaving separate time frames and spaces together to depict how a group of Allied soldiers struggle to evacuate the town of Dunkirk once they are surrounded by Nazi Germans. Pride gets some men through the carnage, while others rely on their will to live. All are trapped in unthinkable situations where death seems certain.

Dunkirk is another one of those “based on real events” type of film which gives it freedom to create realistic characters that get stuck in the actual events that took place. The script’s invented characters allows Nolan to coerce audiences into reckoning with the fragility of human life. We watch young men die in tragic, awful ways. Many die fearful and alone. By highlighting the will to live and what some people would argue is “cowardice” behavior from characters, along with a near immaculate technical focus on sound and editing, Dunkirk pars with the greatest war films in the realm of storytelling.

Watching Dunkirk was a visceral experience—partly because I was nursing a hangover and the resulting nausea in the warm, plush seats of the Cinerama Dome in Seattle. Although, mostly because Dunkirk was such an intense theatrical experience that seized my guts and kept me short of breath, anxious and uneasy. Never deny the power of a large screen and fantastic sound design. Watching Dunkirk unfold on an entire wall of a theater only immersed me deeper into the story. Dunkirk drops you directly in the midst of the dank, bitter war being fought while its nonlinear narrative whips you around and through timelines rarely ever given audiences a moment to catch their breath for too long.

This incessant action has its crests and troughs. On one hand, it makes for a gripping film that forces you to feel anxiety for the people we are following. Nevertheless, we hit moments that feel like a movie. Which invites proper criticism of Nolan as a storyteller. Dunkirk reads like a movie. It’s the type of film that feels unbelievable considering how many twist and turns get thrown at audiences. While that fault is Nolan’s to bear it doesn’t detract from how engrossing this film is. Despite its opulent tall tale of an already incredible real life story, Dunkirk manages to implant itself onto your psyche begging you to feel the tension of these men trapped and vying for an escape.

Nolan has a way of physically telling a story that offsets his subpar writing skills. While he may not be the best with crafting dialogue or situations, he possesses an innate ability to translate emotion and tension through mis-en-scene reminding audiences of his prowess as a filmmaker. Dunkirk is a powerful film, one that should be watched on the largest screen possible to fully immerse yourself in the gruesome reality of war.  I’m guilty of simply thinking humans can stop engaging in war and “give peace a chance.” but I’m constantly reminded, especially these days, that the difficulty lies in ideologies. Are you willing to die for your beliefs? Kill for them? If you thought someone else’s ideas threatened your life and your family, what are you supposed to do? These thoughts are complicated to explore and as films like Dunkirk show, the results are even more complicated.

SEE IT. On the biggest screen possible with the best sound available. 

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