One of the great things about Christopher Nolan is that he rides a line few filmmakers can successfully attain – he makes films for the studio, for the audience and for himself all at once. The studios are working in his favor, not the other way around. No matter how large or epic his films get, they still feel like auteur works. Even his Batman films, what made them special was that they felt like personal films of his. Christopher Nolan was one of the first filmmakers I fell in love with. I was about 12-13 years old when Batman Begins came out, and it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I did pushups for 2 weeks convinced I could become Batman. It was around that time in my life that I was starting to think of films in terms of filmmakers and filmographies, and Nolan was one of the first I attached myself to, seeing each of his films with great anticipation. Over the past few years, I’ve had a tradition of avoiding any trailer for his film online so I can experience it in the theaters first. That’s what kind of filmmaker Nolan is, he demands to be seen on the largest cinematic format available. From Inception onward, I’ve seen each of his films in IMAX, and was lucky enough to have the spiritual experience of seeing Interstellar in 70mm IMAX. Dunkirk follows the historic evacuation of Allied British forces from France back to England, as they are trapped on a beach experiencing constant attack from German forces, trying to find a way to safely transport 400,000 troops across the Atlantic safely. Dunkirk demands, like any Nolan film, to be experienced on the largest cinematic format available. Shell out for the IMAX tickets, then thank me later.
Nolan reunites with famed composer Hans Zimmer, a relationship that has brought some of the historic composer’s best work. You can count his Dunkirk score among his best. It’s an ever present, thrumming, nerve-wracking creation. There’s hardly a moment in the film that the score is not playing under, yet it never overpowers what’s happening on screen, it enhances. There’s a ticking clock that appears frequently throughout to heighten the tension and immediacy of what’s happening, and impressively the effect of it doesn’t feel overused or heavy handed. One of my friends I saw it with put it better than I could, eloquently describing Zimmer’s work as “the dialogue that wasn’t there.” Zimmer has many iconic scores throughout his career, but it doesn’t feel too early to proclaim his Dunkirk score as one of his finest.
Nolan remarked in an interview that he regarded Dunkirk as his most experimental film. In some respects, he’s right. Applying his signature non-linear storytelling to a historical event/war film is certainly unique. When it first began, I had worries that it might serve to be more convoluted than necessary for the film, but it really worked out. The whole structure amps up the tension, it’s disorienting yet focused in the hands of Nolan’s longtime editor Lee Smith. Dunkirk is also impressively minimal on dialogue, the young soldiers we follow on the beach hardly say a word, but they never have to. There’s no expository passages explaining the ever-growing stakes, you can already feel that. He rounds up an ace cast of Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, James D’Arcy, Harry Styles (he’s having a good year, isn’t he?), Cillian Murphy and Mark Rylance. They’re all humble performers, nobody’s trying to outdo each other, they’re all there in service of a sort of reverence for the event. This film is devoid of grand speeches, of oscar moments, each cast member communicates the immediacy of everything through simple facial expressions or physical interactions.
The imagery in this film is absolutely stunning. Nolan has found a great partner in cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (who also shot Interstellar) to replace his longtime Director of Photography Wally Pfister. Hoytema’s work here is grand, constructing several iconic shots that capture the scope of this whole event and his use of natural lighting really enhances the physicality and immediacy of the whole thing. He gets right in the thick of it with the actors, taking us captive with him. As bombs explode and ships sink, we experience what the soldiers do. I hope Hoytema continues to get the call from Nolan. One of Nolan’s greatest traits as a filmmaker is how he always prefers physical, in-camera effects over any use of CGI in his films. He only uses CGI to enhance what’s already there. There’s hardly a shot where CGI was likely used here in Dunkirk, and it goes a long way in making the film an immersive experience – you can trust what you’re seeing.
The film is a brisk 97 minutes, but it feels much longer. Normally, that’s a complaint. It’s not here. Not a frame feels wasted, the feeling of elongation is a result of the superb construction and suspense of the film. There’s barely any room to breathe in the whole thing, Nolan and company hold you in a vice grip and never let go. We’ve gotten to the point where nearly every Nolan film can be debated as his best, so I won’t bother ranking Dunkirk against his filmography. All that we need to know is that this is another expert work from Nolan, a filmmaker who continues to push himself and the limits of theatrical exhibition. He has made another massive film that feels deeply personal to him, a singular theatrical experience unlike many other war films made. May Nolan continue to make personal films of this scale.