Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite directors. I love the way his films are never straight-forward narratives. He writes puzzles that slowly solve themselves before your eyes, allowing you to wonder how the pieces fit together as he guides you towards epiphany. When he announced his last film, Interstellar, I was tremendously excited because his approach seemed like an ideal fit for a sci-fi space epic. But when Dunkirk, a historical war film, was announced, I wasn’t so much excited as I was intrigued. This did not seem like an ideal fit. How can the film be a puzzle with complex narrative structures if it must be bound by factual events? Can Nolan bring his signature style to this subject matter? Read on to find out.
As can be expected from an auteur filmmaker like Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk is not your standard war movie. The cinematography is remarkably naturalistic, eschewing most of the excitement stimulating techniques to which blockbusters have made us accustomed. Rapid cuts, shaky cam, and intense gore will not be found here. This film does not stylize or romanticize the battle; it merely depicts it. The sense of realism is so profound that at times the film almost has the look of a documentary, albeit one where the cameras are able to get just a little too close to the action.
Suffice it to say that these stylistic choices mean that the film is not particularly exciting. It moves at a more measured pace, giving us long takes and wide angle shots that capture the battle in a manner that is both austere and intense. Rather than assault our senses with the carnage of war the way Mel Gibson did in Hacksaw Ridge, Nolan instead chooses to slowly ratchet up the tension using one of his signature techniques: cross-cutting between different, rapidly converging narratives.
Though Dunkirk is perhaps the least Nolany film in Nolan’s filmography, it does still feel like a Nolan film because of its narrative structure. The film has three distinct narratives in three settings: the beach, the sea, and the air. The beach story takes place over the course of a week, the sea story over the course of a day, and the air story over the course of an hour. But of course, through the magic of cinema, Nolan is able to distort our perception of time by progressing all three narratives at the same time. By making it unclear when exactly events are happening in relation to each other, Nolan subtly creates set ups in one narrative with payoffs in another. Seeing how our stories intersect with each other as the film unfolds gives Dunkirk that signature Nolan puzzle-feel. It also allows him to lend a sense of simultaneity to seemingly disparate events.
Contemporaneously advancing ostensibly unrelated narrative threads while each one slowly builds towards its own mini-climax is something at which Nolan excels. Dunkirk, like the rest of his filmography, is full of peaks and valleys – a carefully measured tempo of comfort and suspense. As Hanz Zimmer’s masterful score builds towards crescendo, each narrative in the film moves from a state of calm to a state of escalating disaster, and then back again. The result is that the audience’s engagement with the film stems from our anticipation of the violence rather than the violence itself.
Indeed, the war scenes themselves are shot with such frank realism as to be almost understated. Explosions look rather unremarkable without the giant bursts of fire to which Hollywood has made us accustomed. Arial dogfights between British Spitfires and German Messerschmidts do not feature dazzling feats of acrobatics with planes swooping past the camera. Instead, they are shot primarily from within the fighters’ cockpits and with fuselage mounted cameras (giving us a number of shots very reminiscent of Interstellar). Dunkirk feels more authentic than dramatic.
This approach extends to the writing as well. Characters function primarily as vehicles for the audience to experience the different aspects of the operation. They don’t have backstories or arcs, and most of the time we don’t even learn their names. Each of their individual stories is harrowing, intense, and distinct. By giving us three different, but equally personal narratives, the film is able to convey the scale of the operation while still maintaining a sense of intimacy. It is a difficult balancing act which Dunkirk pulls off splendidly.
When compared to other Nolan films Dunkirk may not be the best example of his directorial style, but it does feature enough of Nolan’s distinctive approach to make it feel like a fresh, original take on the historical war film genre. What it lacks in excitement it makes up for in emotion and suspense. This is a film that is sure to captivate audiences and maybe even pick up a nomination for cinematography at this year’s Oscars. Dunkirk is another installment in a long chain of successes for director Christopher Nolan, and I look forward to seeing what genre he decides to explore next.