Christopher Nolan’s war movie is a real palate cleanser in an era of CG saturation and post-Saving Private Ryan realist violence. That’s not to decry Spielberg’s approach to recreating the theatre of World War II. Then it seemed like a necessary corrective to decades of heightened, bloodless depictions of warfare, divorced from the inhumane brutality of soldiers and civilians’ experiences. But like all original forms of stylization it was quickly copied and became a toolkit for those getting off on high fidelity gore. Mel Gibson’s recent Hacksaw Ridge, for example, gave us cornball patriotism married to pornographic murder. Thankfully, Nolan has no such bloodlust and no propagandizing imperative.
Dunkirk is a successful attempt at recalibrating the war movie; a demythologizing account divested of contemporary clichés and editorializing. It’s a curious mix of old fashioned mawkishness, dewy eyed, if understated, patriotism, and contemporary art house narratological experimentation. It is, appropriately, very British (as we like to think of ourselves). An almost silent film, in which three time signatures recalling the individual experiences of those on land, sea and in the air ultimately converge, it tells human stories without fanfare, expository dialogue or monstering the enemy.
The Germans are never seen, bar an out of focus glimpse at the close. Theirs is a structuring absence, as if inclusion as traditional antagonists, vocal and in close up, would be dishonest when dramatising the memories of combatants and boatmen. Dunkirk’s interested in the experiences of pilots, civilian crews and soldiers trying to escape the encircling enemy. Such people were only likely to see the Germans at a distance – flying aircraft, bombs, gunfire, or feel the heat from their attacks, and consequently, that’s all we get. The scale of the evacuation and rescue is juxtaposed with the intimate; memorable compositions, glances of the unfolding situation, do much of the talking – sailors fleeing a sinking ship as seen by a pilot, a solider walking himself into the sea, observed silently from the beach.
Hans Zimmer’s score allows the audio from each scene to bleed into the next. It’s percussive, binding composition – a heady brew of discombobulating ambience, tension ratcheting dread inducement, and traditional soaring emotional manipulation, bolstered by heart tugging bars from Elgar. The composer proves to be as important here as he was in Nolan’s Interstellar – a reminder that film music, when handled with intelligence and artfulness, can still be part of a movie’s personality and fundamental to its success. How we miss it elsewhere.
Fundamentally a rethink of what a war movie can be, interested in the emotional truth of events, Dunkirk both reinvigorates one’s appreciation for what was achieved without pretending that each and every person involved was a paragon of virtue and courage. The fear of the soldiers and the spirit of the rescuers, and the risk to both (sometimes from unexpected quarters), cuts through. The ending, one of the most moving I’ve seen for many years, employs understatement to manipulative but devastating effect. That’s the movie, all told – cinema that gains its power from the humanity on display, not viscera and tub thumping.