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The Visceral Physicality of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’

Written by on July 22, 2017 

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In the hours since viewing Dunkirk – the newest film from surprisingly divisive blockbuster director Christopher Nolan – one sensory recollection has stuck out above all others. Every time that British spitfire pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) accelerates or banks his plane, the soundtrack fills with the noise of metallic rattling, an uncomfortable chorus of knocks and pings that lets you know exactly how much stress and force are working on the riveted metal of the aircraft. It is enough to make the audience member grip his or her armrest and go tense, holding their breath lest their exhalation somehow force the machine apart. On the screen, the yolk trembles and the canopy trembles, and all the while that sound lets you know that these are not tricks of the eye. This is very much a device built by human hands, piloted by a man who depends on it to live, and who is operating it at his own tremendous peril.

Given the epic scale and broad cast of characters that define Dunkirk, this might seem like a strange totem to carry as a herald for the film’s quality, but minor details like the rattling of a 1940s fighter plane are key to what allows a movie of this scale to effect an audience so intimately. Given that the movie was shot on large format film and focuses on the evacuation of 400,000 allied soldiers at the outset of World War II, it would be easy for a filmmaker to lose sight of the tiny, personal sensations that these men must have experienced. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema indulge in wide shots and sweeping arial pans, but they never neglect horrifying the minutia of the moment.

That moment is late May, 1940. The British Expeditionary Forces in France have been driven to the sea, and await transportation back to England on the beaches of Dunkirk. A shallow beach without enough of a draw to allow large vessels near the shore, Dunkirk is not the kind of evacuation point that would be chosen tactically. This is a destination bred of desperation, and that desperation permeates every thread of the narrative on display, leaching into the sinew and marrow of the audience. We follow the action across three cross-cutting narratives, each one occupying its own distinct amount of time.

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On the beach, we spend a week following a group of young soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles) as they do everything they can to escape from their seaside purgatory one second sooner. On the sea, over the course of a day, a stolid civilian captain (Mark Rylance) pilots his leisure yacht across the English channel to aid the withdrawal with only his son Peter and his friend George (Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan) as a crew. In the air, Farrier and his wingman (Jack Lowden) have only an hour’s-worth of fuel left with which to defend the evacuation against enemy fighters and bombers.

Though each of these points of view occupies a very different amount of time in terms of story, they each play out concurrently across the length of the film. Those who are familiar with Nolan’s previous films may assume that the compression and expansion of time between these shuffling narratives is in service of some reveal or twist, but the real reason behind this construction is much simpler. Nolan’s interest is not in the planning of the operation, and his focus on the aftermath is limited at best. Rather, he only wants to live within the experience, in the moment, and by beginning at the outset of each plot and making them coexist in harmony, he ensures that the full breadth and impact of each experience is felt to its fullest. Each timeframe is the culmination of everything that came before, and for each player within it there may well be no other moment than this one. Be it the purgatory of the beach, the slow drag of the sea, or the frantic final dogfights in the air, this was the length of time during which it felt do-or-die, and so it makes sense that they elapse together.

The bravely understated performances given by the actors work in service of this egalitarian objective. Though we view each event through the eyes of these people, the point is never to turn them into a hero beyond the scope of what effect they may have had in reality. Rather, they seem designed to melt into the scrum of war, to blend with their surroundings. They never feel safe, shielded by the halo granted to protagonists. Every gunshot, every explosion, every drop of water feels dangerous to their wellbeing not because the gods of cinema are setting out to endanger them, but because the demons of war have no regard for individual human life. In fearing for them we fear for everyone, and as such every sinking boat becomes a vessel we can see filled with scared young men just like those we have come to worry ourselves over.

All of these things – the tactile expressiveness of the sound and cinematography, the coexistence and convergence of time, the everyman quality of our protagonists – meld together artfully, creating one of the most propulsive, effective moviegoing experiences in recent memory. In the storm of war there is no moment of calm, only a slight waning of the torrent before the next crack of thunder, and that hum of anxiety and fear fills the theater. Buoyed and enhanced by Hans Zimmer’s cracking, excitable score (pointedly underscored by the sound of a ticking clock), Dunkirk is a movie that happens to you, around you. It is an experience that surrounds you and overwhelms you.

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Every blockbuster I’ve seen this summer has felt thin, ethereal. Light projected on a screen, images flashing and noises sounding, but with no blood or soul behind them. The movies never felt alive, and they never felt invested in the audience who might be watching them. They seemed to exist independent of us, and one could imagine Spider-Man: Homecoming or War for the Planet of the Apes playing on a loop in an empty room with no appreciable difference in the atmosphere between that screening and one filled with people. Dunkirk, in contrast, bleeds for its audience, and the audience is compelled to do the same. It creates an electricity in the theater that builds within those in attendance and then explodes from them in moments of blistering tension. It creates a feedback loop. This, at last, is a movie in the classic sense. A film I didn’t know I had been waiting for all summer. One that casts a spell, that fills the theater like a physical force.

There is nothing else in theaters like it, and no true way to experience it but in a theater, among a crowd not unlike the crowds on that beach. Be aware, though; much in that same way that the film toys with time in its own plot, so does it toy with time to those who watch it. Less than two hours long, you’ll emerge, enthralled and enraptured and exhausted, certain that you had been through a much longer ordeal. Just imagine how those men and boys on the beach, on the boat, and in that plane felt. You won’t have to try very hard – Dunkirk will make you feel as though you’d been with them every step of the way.

Brian J. Roan is the host of The Film Stage Show and founder of Dear Film. Listen to his discussion of Dunkirk below.


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