Some of my favourite films are directed by Christopher Nolan: Inception, The Dark Knight (mostly because of Ledger) and I also have fond memories of watching Memento as a kid. I even remember being fascinated by Insomnia when I saw it years ago. But then there’s also Interstellar which I didn’t like at all and nothing could make me want to see that movie ever again. So before seeing Dunkirk I was expecting greatness but I also had that nagging worry inside my brain that the last Nolan movie was a space opera I almost fell asleep to. So my emotions were all over the place before the movie. My emotions after the movie were even more scattered, but for entirely different reasons.
There are minor spoilers ahead.
War as a concept is something that has somehow been present in my life since I was born. Though I grew up in a free country, I have always been aware of its many occupations. I have known family members who have survived hardships related to war and forceful takeovers of the government. I myself, only a few months old, was a part of a human chain connecting 2 million people through the Baltic countries to demonstrate our need for freedom. And though Estonia will turn a 100 years old in a few years, I myself was born into a country that was still a part of the Soviet Union after World War II. Luckily, Estonia regained its independents when I was two years old, and the last Russian troops left my country when I was 4 and too young to remember their presence. But my point is this. Wars have been fought, hardships have been endured, but there are millions of lives still affected by war in the present world. And while I’m comfortable and safe in my own country, there are places in the world where fear is a constant part of someone’s everyday life. Fear that you may not survive another week, another day, another hour.
A week, a day and an hour is also the narrative structure of Dunkirk, Nolan’s newest movie and the first historical film by the infamous director. While the structure was a little confusing at first, and even after the movie was over, the effect of it really starts to unravel days later. You remember bits and pieces of the movie, you start to compile them into a linear story, you wonder how Cillian Murphy’s character ended up from giving commands on that rowing boat to being that man sitting on the edge of that sunken ship. You start to cut the movie into pieces, reassembling it, arranging it in your mind, and before you know it, you’ve spent hours upon hours thinking about Dunkirk.
And now, after weeks of having time to think about it, and to wonder about it, I’ve come to the following conclusion: Dunkirk is an exceptional war movie and one of the finest examples of bravery and survival. There were many moments during the movie when I was griping my seat and hoping that the man on the screen would make it. There were many moments in which I understood that many of the men standing on that beach, celebrating briefly on those ships, did not make it. But there were also moments where I believed in the goodness of people, in the bravery of ordinary men, and in the joy of being alive. Dunkirk may be a movie that doesn’t spend a lot of time forming the words to say these things out loud but Dunkirk is a movie that captures these moments through its visual presentation, acting and sound design. And it is in those moments of silence when Dunkirk manages to be more realistic and more honest than any other war movie before it.
While the presentation of violence, first and foremost, the lack of it on screen, is probably my only negative comment towards the movie, Dunkirk still captures the urgency and the horror of death. And, most importantly, it invokes the feeling of fear right from the start. In the first scene we are shown has 6 soldiers walking on an abandoned street, but only one of them makes it back to the beach. 1 out of 6. In other words, it takes less than 6 minutes for Dunkirk to create an atmosphere where the situation seems dire, hopeless and unfair. Those feelings are there for the duration of the film, which surprisingly short for Nolan’s standards, but exactly long enough to establish a narrative, introduce characters and to build, to maintain and deliver a thrilling experience.
The first half of the movie was frustrating to witness because it captured the difficulty of the situation so well. Soldiers upon soldiers stuck on that beach, waiting, and witnessing the futile attempts to go back home. Among those soldiers was also our point of view character for the week narrative, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who was a great choice! He is, well technically was, an unknown actor who felt like every other soldier on that beach (an interesting visual choice by Nolan), but gradually he became more important to the viewer to pick out from the crowd. There were so many scenes where I was simply immersed in the action, and the way Whitehead looked, feeling the same emotions, the same struggles, the same kind of hopeless fear that these soldiers were thrust into the middle of.
A lot of buzz was also placed on the movie by the hardcore One Direction fans because Harry Styles was cast in his first movie, and I was kind of buzzing with excitement as well. But, and this most likely differentiates me from the true fans (sad but true), I actually think he wasn’t as strong as the other actors who got as much screen time as he did. In my opinion, Styles still needs to hone in his emotions, and learn how to feel things so deep inside that it manifests on his face, but most importantly, in his eyes. Styles was a notch below the others in that regard, almost there but not yet, and the eyes were not telling the story in the most important scenes. His eyes felt vaguely blank, and not in a good way either, which is a shame because all the others nailed that part of the performance, Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard as Gibson, Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, Kenneth Branagh as Bolton, and most importantly, the veteran eye-actor, Tom Hardy.
Hardy is the focus of the hour narrative, which takes place solely in the sky, and his performance is close to flawless. He wears a mask most of the time, covering the lower half of his face but his eyes do the acting for him, as they have done many times before. And we know Hardy can carry a character with few words, his Mad Max being my favourite performance of his, so it’s just truly magnificent to see him taking on this very minimal role as Farrier and easily becoming the standout. And honestly, the other pilot, Collins (Jack Lowden) was pretty good as well! One of my favourite scenes was actually the moment when Collins is about to drown, is then in the knick of time is saved by Mr. Dawson, after which he just says “Good day!” in the most joyful tone possible. It made me chuckle. But I was also thinking how this man, who constantly flies towards his possible death, almost dies, and yet, stays positive? I can’t place it, that scene was such a contrast to everything else, and yet it seemed to carry an important meaning – a different side of bravery and courage.
Speaking of courage – the day narrative was probably the most emotional, which is saying a lot because the whole movie was like an emotional roller coaster with Hank Zimmer’s soundtrack provoking tears around every corner. The reason behind it being the most emotional was because these characters were not supposed to be there. For we had soldiers and fighter pilots, who were supposed to risk their lives, contradict the characters of ordinary people: Mr. Dawson and two boys, George (Barry Keoghan) and Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney). A man with kids, going towards a hostile situation, to save lives – volunteering to be an everyday hero. It was beautiful. And it was sad. That whole narrative was brutal because it introduced us a different kind of violence that happens during war. The kind that is unexplainable, unnecessary, the kind that is unstable. Cillian Murphy’s character in this narrative becomes someone who is transformed from being a victim of war into someone who could be perceived as the enemy. An unexpected enemy created by the real enemy.
Which brings me to the last true testament of how masterfully Dunkirk is constructed. We never really see the enemy. We never really see the look in their faces, or the anger in their eyes. But the idea of the enemy is always there, it is always on the back of our minds. We might not see them, but they are always there, and suddenly they are shooting, firing, launching missiles, puncturing ships, moving, step by step, closer to that beach – the enemy is there, and the idea of the enemy being somewhere out there, behind you, in front of you, on both sides of you, becomes as terrifying as actually facing the enemy.
Over the years I have seen many war movies, and to this day, the scene on the beach at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan is one of my all time favourites. It’s the violence, it’s the blood, the gore, the sheer amount of death on that beach that for me represents war in its most gruesome form. While Dunkirk never shows any blood, which is a negative and a positive at the same time, it explores violence in a different angle. It showcases the fear of the unknown. May it be the unknown face of the enemy, may it be the unknown moment when the enemy troops arrive at the beach, may it be the missile that may or may not hit the ship carrying soldiers – it’s the uncertainty in war that Dunkirk explores. The waiting. The moment when the bodies have fallen, when the war is fought and the waiting for it to be completely over for those who managed to survive it really begins.
So yes, Dunkirk is a quiet film of few words, but it also screams at you with such loud meaning that you have to cover your ears. It doesn’t need to say things out loud and it uses visual means to portray meaning: the marking of the fuel with chalk, the sound of the bullet puncturing the side of the ship. And nowadays, when movies so often forget how smart the viewer is, Dunkirk is refreshingly intelligent and sophisticated to its core. And even a month later, even after writing this review, I still have so many things I could say about Dunkirk. I haven’t even found words to express how cleverly the movie explores various facades of bravery, contrary to the way it portrayed fear. How it showcases the strength of hope and its ability to remain in the hearts of even the most weary. And most importantly, how it emphasises the importance to continue fighting a little bit longer, just an hour, a day, a week, a lifetime… for freedom.