Dunkirk is unconventional movie from the beginning. The first shot we see is young soldiers running. We do not see most of their faces, and as they are running, all but one of them are shot and fall to the ground dead. This sets up two unusual features of Dunkirk: the characterization of most of the characters is unimportant and the enemy is unidentified.
I heard that Christopher Nolan wanted Dunkirk to be a virtual reality without the headset. That is certainly a great description. This is immersive cinema, which encourages the audience to imagine that they are in the scenario. Dunkirk also stresses the reality of the situation, and as such strips the film of treasured conventions in pursuit of this goal.
The perfect example is this is the lack of the “girlfriend chit chat” scene. In many of these types of films, there is a scene where the soldiers sit and talk about their girlfriends or wives back home, and the audience is supposed to want the soldiers to survive in order for them to go home to their wives and girlfriends. (I guess single soldiers can die?) These scenes establish character and just as critically, they ease the tension in the film. Nolan dispenses with these scenes. He gives the audience no room to breathe, no release of tension.
Dunkirk is a war film, but it is also clearly a Nolan film. This was most clearly pointed out by a review by New Rockstars on Youtube. They pointed out that the true enemy in Dunkirk is not the Germans, but time. Once again, in Dunkirk, we see Nolan’s fascination with time. In Dunkirk, he bends it, distorts it, and measures it. He measures it in gallons of gasoline, days on the beach, and just as crucially, tides.
Another aspect of the film I have not seen addressed is that Dunkirk is a BIG film. Nolan filmed it on IMAX film, and I believe on 70 mm film as well, though I am not sure. Personally, I think that Nolan is telling us something with this. He wants us to focus on the big picture. He doesn’t want us to care about an individual soldier going home to his girlfriend, as if that is important in any way. The truth is that one soldier is meaningless in Dunkirk. What is meaningful is the fact that the British managed to save over 300,000(!) soldiers. Britain needed an army, not a soldier. Once again, Nolan challenges the perspective, forcing us to focus on the big picture, on saving as many soldiers as possible.
Much has also been made of the fact that the film is not gory. I am fine with that. I have my limits to gore but also for another reason. Gore isn’t fresh. When Mel Gibson and Steven Spielberg made Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan as gory as they did, the films were revolutionary. I remember people talking about the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan when I was 14, and Tom Hanks defending the brutality of the film. “Wouldn’t it have been a sin if we didn’t make it so gruesome?” he said. The problem is, now audiences expect gore. What was once revolutionary is now cliche.
Instead Nolan focuses on other kinds of horror. One especially harrowing scene involves young men trapped on the beach in a boat. The soldiers argue over whether or not they should force one soldier to sacrifice himself so that the survival of the rest of the rest of the men can be secured. He has a chilling line, “Survival’s not fair.” He shows cowardice and selfishness. He is not a hero. The men in the boat are not heroes. They are desperate to survive in a scenario, and they have no control over “who lives, who dies, who tells (their) story.” There is also not really a sense of a storyteller saving the heroes because they are valuable to the plot. the movie is just about vulnerable people, and we are with them in that moment of vulnerability.
I also want to talk about the end of the film. The film ends with Churchill’s famous speech about Dunkirk (“We shall fight them on the beaches”), but NOT with Churchill. The speech is read out of the newspaper by a soldier. There is heroic music and the image of fire. It is almost the perfect heroic ending. But the film does not end there. Instead, the last shot is of the face of a young soldier. The big film has an intimate ending.
Dunkirk is a breath of fresh air. Box Office Mojo has Dunkirk as the #6 grossing film in the summer. But I want to focus on the films surrounding it. 6 out of the 10 films on the list are sequels. Two of the films are superhero films in an extended comic book universe. Movies today are very derivative. Hollywood is scared. Films are expensive and a flop can wreck a studio, so artistry takes a backseat to money. While other films often devolve into CGI crap fests, Nolan eschews them in his films, even buying an authentic Nazi plane simply so that he can crash it. It is also exciting to see a war film that is not about Americans, though America is mentioned at the end in Churchill’s speech. Quite simply, it is a relief to see an original film in the theaters.