Coming in at a tight 1 hour and 47 minutes, Christopher Nolan’s first non-fantasy film, is a tour-de-force of film-making. The picture is the first movie of the summer season that truly left me in awe when I exited the IMAX theater (I highly recommend that everyone see it in IMAX). Dunkirk tells the historical event of the Miracle of Dunkirk, which was the evacuation of more than 300,000 soldiers from the northern French beach.
There are three prominent groups of characters: the soldiers on the beach, the civilians sailing to Dunkirk, and the British pilots in the air. None of their backstories are explored and we are thrust into their world, just as many of the young men of the time were when they were sent to war. However, Nolan is still able to create emotion from these characters because they have simple motivations.
For the many young men on the beach, they simply want to go home. Their desires motivate every action that they take in order to make that happen. As a result, some of their despicable actions and words foster sympathy and empathy from the audience. While most of us have never had the experience of being sent to war, we understand that being at Dunkirk was not a choice for many young men. We understand that for most of them, they were sent to war, only to never return and be forgotten in the course of history — never to be remembered for their contributions, however small.
This theme of suffering and survival is prevalent and the major focus of the picture, which may be the reason for Nolan’s decison to avoid showing neither the enemy or Winston Churchill on screen. For this is not a film about the leaders, adversaries, and strategy, it is about the fear held by people on that beach, many of whom died, and the heroes who valiantly tried to save them.
Nolan supports these emotions through the visual and aural aspects of the film. Watching this film in IMAX, every bullet, every bomb, every tick, felt overwhelming. The sound production simulated what the soldiers would have heard on the beach, which allowed the audience to truly understand a portion of the young men’s fears. Unlike in Nolan’s previous film, Interstellar, Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack was not distracting. In fact, it allows us to appreciate the film visually more when there is complete silence.
One of the best instances of this directorial choice was when Tom Hardy’s character, a British pilot, is flying over the beach and Nolan gives the audience a sweeping view of the beach. The emotion and and sense of victory cannot be captured in words. However, the feeling sacrifice and heroism is clear — especially as the film closes with a burning plane and the young men who survived, walking in to an unknown future.
Dunkirk is a cinematic and technical triumph. Nolan has managed to capture the emotions of a story relying almost entirely upon the visual aspect of film. He reminds us that as many filmmakers and studios are moving toward digital film with a heavy focus on acting, Dunkirk proves that there is still much left to be explored.