Christopher Nolan’s latest movie Dunkirk is said to be the biggest feather in his cap, and I am not going to argue about that. If anything, his first foray into non-fiction proves that his talent goes beyond fucking the mind. He can, without any pretense, also offer an experience that does not only linger, but stays to become a part of who you are.
The discomfort and anxiety that have becomes staples in his films are still there, but so are feelings of hope, fortitude, and a ceaseless will to live. This may be Nolan at his best – in full control of his craft, showing a relentless picture of the intimacy of war even in the remotest conditions.
Maybe, this really is the best Nolan film ever made.
For the English-American director, Dunkirk is not a movie about war, but a movie about survival. Allied soldiers struggle to stay alive after being surrounded by German troops with no artillery at their disposal, and without food and water in sight. This is World War II. Science and technology has led to the invention of rockets, bombs and torpedoes. Nolan, known for his nonlinear films, seamlessly puts together the battles of the land, the sea, and the air devoid of Tarantino-esque gore. Instead, he made the victims of war, as well as the audience, exhausted through the characters’ ceaseless battle with death. The scenes are almost asphyxiating – soldiers drowning to death, soldiers fleeing from dropped missiles, soldiers fighting for a spot in rescue boats. Every attempt to flee the bays of Dunkirk seems to be futile, as Luftwaffe planes destroy ships and kill anything of value without rest. All these eventually meet at the center, and flows through the screen like butter in a pan – sizzling, melting, and satisfying to watch.
But what’s even more pressing in a movie set in chaos and destruction is its lack of dialogue. The most painful scenes to watch do not involve screams or explosions, but excruciatingly long pauses, and stretches of lost gaze. It’s the soldier who killed himself by running into the violent sea. It’s the heavy breathing of a young lad that had just survived another attempt at his life. Nolan doesn’t tell, but vividly shows. No war movie has been so immersive for me than this. This unbelievable irony, this ability to communicate the pangs of war without speech, clearly shows his clear command of his vision and his art.
Throughout the film, no character is identified or named. How Nolan is able to paint this historical feat in each character without disregarding the ideals that band nations and people together is too genius that it’s almost incomprehensible to me. The primary movers of war, Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler, stay in the background as voices from the radio and symbols on aircraft. As with any form of storytelling, it’s in the accounts of ordinary people, the actions of people from the ground, that we find ourselves being drawn to. After all, the miracle of Dunkirk is made possible by use of small civilian vessels, pleasure boats and private yachts that were mostly manned by the owners themselves. They shuttled the soldiers from France back to the familiar: home.
One by one, small boats occupy the bays of Dunkirk. We see men and women aboard, ready to be of assistance to anyone. Waiting for their reprieve is like waiting for ourselves to exhale after witnessing their arduous struggle to stay alive. We share their relief and their success like we are part of this story. These moments, really, are universal.
There are familiar faces of course. Tom Hardy plays the role of a sharp-shooter Spitfire pilot who decided to save more lives in exchange of his. His face is covered with an oxygen mask almost the entire film, but Hardy shines with his limited yet powerful gestures. There is also Harry Styles, former member of the ultra famous boy band One Direction. Styles is lucky to have his first acting job in the hands of Nolan, a stint even Daniel Radcliffe was not able to pull. For a moment, Styles’ perfect hair locks are out, but he remains as a symbol of youth, although in an entirely different setting and with his life at steak.
The spectacle of Dunkirk doesn’t end there. Hans Zimmer encloses the film in a musical score that seems to be always rushing, in a tempo similar to violent tides. Emotions double as Zimmer guides us to what we should feel at a given scene without imposing. But my favorite bit would be the immediate silence towards the end, as Styles is aboard the train, when Zimmer suddenly cuts off the music just as when my heart is already invested in the moment. We see the soldiers welcomed with beers, bread and jeers. An even heavier pressure pierce my heart, and I am left with no words.
If civilians from the 1940s had the physical, mental and emotional resolve to plunge themselves into war to do what they can and try what they couldn’t, it’s puzzling that in 2017, immigrants in boats find no place to call home.
Dunkirk, although a spectacular account of the past, seems to mirror the battles of the present too.