For Your Consideration: Dunkirk

by: Douglas Grant

The case for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk to win Best Picture at the 2018 Academy Awards…

Christopher Nolan has indisputably established himself as one of the most groundbreaking and visionary directors of our time. He’s proven himself, again and again, as such an adept storyteller that Warner Bros. seems willing to greenlight any project he brings to the table. Much like with Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, it is Nolan’s name that draws moviegoers to theaters in droves, not the A-listers that are billed as the lead actors. Perhaps this is the reason why with his latest film, Dunkirk, he’s been given the opportunity to tell a story that seems very near and dear to his heart, one that sheds the skin of conventional storytelling to delve deeply into the particulars of such a wide-ranging conflict.

Film buffs first became familiar with Nolan’s work in 2000’s revenge thriller Memento. Though many directors have played around with timelines since the early days of filmmaking, Memento’s storytelling—presented linearly from end to beginning—was inventively avante garde. With Dunkirk, Nolan has also successfully pulled off a different sort of time bending for the film’s narrative. The differing frameworks of the three main storylines (land told inside the span of a week, sea in one day, and air in one hour) serve to distort the viewers’ sense of time, but it works in its application. Not only does the time manipulation lend itself to the film’s evermounting tension, but it also creates in viewers a shared empathy with the characters at the forefront of the story, letting them feel the desperation of those who served in the miraculous retreat of over 300,000 soldiers from Dunkirk back across the English Channel. Where the different stories overlap is where some of the film’s most poignant moments happen, and viewers garner a greater appreciation for the pure despair the Allied soldiers experience as the German Army closes in, pushing them to the edge of the sea.

Much in the way Nolan stands out among Hollywood’s best directors from this generation, so too has Hans Zimmer distinguished himself as one of the leading composers of our time. A longtime collaborator with Nolan1, Zimmer has produced a score for Dunkirk that is so integral to the film’s tension-building that it is almost a character unto itself. The score is pulsating, grating at times, and it is relentless. It rarely lets up for the film’s one hour forty-six minute runtime, ever-ticking away like a clock reminding viewers how precious little time there is left for the protagonists to evacuate France before they’re overrun. In his overall body of work, Zimmer has proven himself not only apt but adaptable in creating moods that specific scenes call for. Here with Dunkirk he has created an unceasing feeling of dread so palpable that viewers find themselves going taut with suspense. However, contrasting with this feeling of imminent doom is a composition, “Home,” so ingrained with hope that viewers experience rapture at the strength of the human spirit. During this scene, when the civilian vessels arrive in tandem, a long line of private ships and pleasure yachts spanning northward all the way to the horizon, army and navy personnel realizing that their deliverance has arrived, Zimmer builds the score to a crescendo that is so moving that it creates a sense of elation in viewers, flipping Dunkirk’s demoralizing tone on its head. This is where Zimmer shows his true mastery of film scoring.

Despite having to film in detail a backdrop of death and destruction, Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography in Dunkirk is absolutely magnificent. Hoytema shoots the extensive northern French Coast that is featured in the film from a variety of angles, and in doing so captures a plethora of color palettes from rolling blue waves to topaz sunbeams. The sense of awe that Hoytema’s cinematic images conjure up has the ability to make viewers forget that he is crafting upon a canvas of war and devastation. There is abundant evidence of Hoytema’s talent on display throughout Dunkirk, but no more so than during the dogfights he choreographs, which are arguably the most spectacular ever filmed. Hoytema has a discerning eye, and this attention to detail in recreating the Battle of Dunkirk is why he, like Zimmer, can take credit for what makes watching the film such an extraordinary experience.

Whereas many war films will follow a specific character, company, platoon, or unit, Dunkirk has no one real clear-cut protagonist. While much of the film is seen through the eyes of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), there is no main character in the traditional storytelling sense. Furthermore, dialogue in Dunkirk is minimal, Nolan preferring to let the sequence of events in this horrific early chapter in World War II do most of the talking. Nolan is careful to keep viewers rooted in the moment as the story unfolds, referencing the greater picture only fleetingly, such as early in the film when the Rear Admiral tells the mistaken Commander Bolton there will be no terms with the Germans: “They’re not stopping here. We need to get our army back. Britain’s next, then the rest of the world.” This is enough to provide viewers, even those minimally familiar with World War II in 1940, with a tremendous sense of foreboding as they, along with Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant, come to the realization that the Germans will not simply stop their march with the conquests of France and Belgium. The detailed history of the evacuation is the plot, while survival and camaraderie in the face of impossible odds are the film’s themes.

Dunkirk has worthy performances from Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, Kenneth Branagh, and Brian Vernel, just to name a few. But in terms of sheer movie-making excellence, the real accolades should be reserved for Dunkirk’s writer and director, cinematographer, and composer. The scope of their collective vision is what makes the film so auspicious. It is not an easy movie to sit through; it will make viewers anxious, feeling as if they are right there in the heart-pounding action for this dark, violent moment in human history. However, if one can make it to the end of the film, bearing witness to the triumph of those who persevere, then the hope one feels, even as Royal Air Force pilot Farrier gets taken captive by the German army, makes enduring the intensity of Dunkirk well worth it.

  1. Interstellar, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, and The Prestige. []

1 Comment

  • An excellent review. I like the way Douglas Grant deconstructed each element. Now I want to go back and consider Zimmer’s score. As a musician I’m always aware of the way a film score works its moods subliminally. Hans Zimmer has been around a loooong time. This is a good observation of the way a film works its magic.

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