If you don’t know about the Miracle of Dunkirk, you’re in the majority (of Americans, at least). So here’s a little background, because the film jumps right into the action.
Dunkirk follows three different time lines, ‘cause Chris Nolan isn’t interested in your linear thinking. The evacuation of British soldiers from the French city of Dunkirk by military ships and civilian boats across the English channel takes places over a week. The story of one of those civilian boats takes place over a day, and the story of a British air force pilot happens in the span of an hour.
There is sparse dialogue, little exposition, and maybe two characters are named. It’s almost like a silent film, save for a menacing score by Hans Zimmer.
Nolan here presents a war film like no other in that it is a war film with very little heroics. It’s cold. Part of that is the characters (or lack thereof, see below), the other is that this is a survival situation, and becoming a soldier doesn’t just automatically make you a hero. Every man is there for himself, and in a sense, it is more of an evenhanded, empathetic film. There are very few real heroes presented here, and so there is no bad guy when everyone is just trying to live.
I go to the movies to meet people I would never meet in real life, and share in their experiences. I’m a character person. I’m excited for franchises when they’re built on dynamic characters. I love it when I walk out of the theater wanting to know that character’s favorite color and if they’d be my best friend.
Dunkirk is not a movie that cares about its characters. It’s a film about an event, and the character are more or less just pieces. And that’s a message in itself: Wars don’t view people as people.
I get it, not all movies are character-driven or need to have memorable characters. Dunkirk is an experience-film. The emotion you have watching the film comes from the basic human desire to survive. It doesn’t need compelling characters and backstories to make you want to scream, “RUN FOR YOUR LIVES.”
But as a character person, Dunkirk bothered me in that regard. I can’t tell you the name of a single character. In fact, if we did a line-up, if I couldn’t name the actor, then I probably couldn’t tell you what the character did. They all looked the same, too. It’s not just me either. I saw the film with about twenty other people, and most of them said similar things.
So if you go into Dunkirk knowing it’s an experience-movie, then you’ll have an even better time. Go big, treat yo self. Go see it in a theater that is showing it on film. See it with a crowd. See it in a claustrophobic room with no escape. See it on a sinking ship. Go big in getting the full experience, because this will probably be the only time you see it. Unless you like war movies as light bedtime watching, it doesn’t have much of a rewatchability factor.
That’s fine, because Christopher Nolan has achieved what he wanted. He created a film that pushes himself as a filmmaker, the war genre, and audiences to expand their definition of heroic. This isn’t Saving Private Ryan. This is Saving Private Me, and while everyone who went to war was heroic, Dunkirk demonstrates that living is its own kind of heroism. Who lives and who dies is often more left up to circumstances than to the quality of the people around you.
I don’t know if this film will finally win Nolan some Oscars, but it is a win for audiences. Dunkirk is a thought-provoking, adrenaline-rushing, minimalistic film, and it is clear that Dunkirk was a vision executed to its finest.