Yesterday, I saw Christopher Nolan’s new movie ‘Dunkirk’. It was a typical Nolan movie in that it was solid, shot like a film major’s boner and had some stunning sound effects (I’m sure this last has a more technical term but I’ll be damned if I learn it).
The first thing to explain about the movie is that there are three timelines which all finish at the same time but cover different amounts of time. The first is the events which take place on and around the beach at Dunkirk. These are most of the trailer shots, they feature the sinking ships, the screaming soldiers and Harry Styles.
I very much enjoyed this part of the movie as it provided the viewer with the most ‘realistic’ viewpoint of the bloody war we think of as WW2. In a tradition which began with ‘Saving Private Ryan’, Nolan shows the horrors of people being forced to fire huge weapons of war at one another because someone older and more experienced than them told them to.
The main protagonist Tommy is the action-driver for this sequence of events and it’s his impulse to get the fuck away from these death machines that colours the whole movie. In the other timelines, Nolan gives us a pleasure boat manned by a man, his son and his son’s friend, as well as Tom Hardy shooting planes out of the sky in his Spitfire.
With these other story lines, Nolan interposes the needs of the soldier with the needs of the airman with the needs of the Brits at home. This is key to understanding why this movie is different from the others that have treated the same material. Nolan is not saying any one thing, he’s not making any wholesale statements about anything but instead showing the reality of life: it’s complicated.
Now you may say this is an understatement, but it’s not, or you just haven’t seen the movie and I don’t know what your problem is. It’s easy to say the blame lies on the command which left all those boys on the beach, or the Nazis or jingoism or even just plain old capitalistic greed. But instead, Nolan goes through painstaking measures to show how pretty much everyone fighting on that beach was in over his head. He shows that you cared about what you could care about, what your circumstances allowed you to think about is what you thought about.
The timeline involving the boat is both a triumphant one and a sad one. The three sailors happen upon a solider sitting on top of the boat he was being evacuated in after it slowly sinks, he is the only survivor seen. They rescue this soldier and bring him aboard, but he starts to become increasingly nervous and hostile when he realizes that his saviours plan to return to Dunkirk for others like him instead of taking his water-soaked ass back to Britain.
This young friend on the boat tries to calm him down at one point but is pushed away by the soldier and hits his head on a pipe. As he bleeds out, he tells his friend that all he’s ever wanted was to be someone notable, to be mentioned in the local paper for doing something good. In the end he dies and his friend returns back to Britain and does get his picture put in the paper.
Each character in this movie is as well fleshed out as our fallen sailor and this is another of the ways Nolan makes a technically proficient movie – something he might just be the master at.
If I had to detract from this movie I would say that it looks too much like a Dardennes Brothers flick, one of those French guys anyways, but really that’s not much to squabble over.