First things first…
“I did not want to go through the dialogue to tell the story of my characters. The problem is not who they are, who they claim to be, or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? Will they be killed by the next bomb while trying to join the mole? Or will they be crushed by a boat crossing?…” : Christopher Nolan
Based on real events of Operation Dynamo from World War 2, Where British Airforce and Navy had to come up with a plan to rescue lakhs of Allied troops surrounded by German forces and stranded on the Dunkerque beach.
Dunkirk unfolds this event in a triptych (from three perspectives) – on the mole, the bay, and the sea. Where each perspective unfolds at a different pace – one week (as footsloggers stand in lines waiting for boats to go home), one day (where civilians plan to rescue their country’s stranded men) and one hour (when RAF pilots dogfight with Messerschmitts as the footslogger’s retreat). As movie marches on these events of foots-loggers, sailors and pilots delve into a proper tale of “Chaos, Fear, and Survival“.
Nolan is the greatest player of the time if ever there is one. You never felt such value of time outside his movies and you can never expect to get a better director and writer who can depict the time like him on screen.
Time is one tool that needs to be used in a movie very carefully. No, I am not talking about the time travel movies or sci-fi genre extravaganzas. I’m talking about time being a relative tool for a story teller. If you want to depict a character going through different emotions, you need to use Time carefully. If you want to depict a character has just walked ten miles, creatively, there too you need to understand time is a tool and it needs to be used with vigilance at every step. For me, Nolan appears to be that one filmmaker who understands it brilliantly and executes it even perfectly. Sometimes, I used to feel, why this man wants to narrate in a hurry? Why so many inserts? Why do you need a monolog being run in the background? Well, today I found my answers.
For any maker who understands the time and how it needs to inculcated into your story at any given point of time, he will try to use it to create a sense of urgency or a sense of calmness whenever he can. Nolan tries to do both and expertly crafts it without any doubt. For example, when the story starts at the Mole, you are shown it from the perspective of a young soldier who runs for his life, makes friends with a French guy without knowing his real identity and then looks to survive one mayhem after another. His struggle goes on for a week. On the other hand, there is a civilian who lost his son to war and who believes in fighting it out to survive rather than running away to survive. His Blue Moon becomes an inspiration for many and his story is a day. Then comes the Spitfire army, whose fight is for an hour. They don’t have enough fuel to go on for days and they have to end it by the time, their fuel tanks cry out loud for a refill.
So three perspectives are set, and Nolan straight away immerses us into the story with his visuals rather than dialogue. He has been using dialogue to depict more actions in his latest movies, but for this one, he keeps everything at bare minimum. He makes a huge effort to let the audience member be one of those soldiers and his immersive camera technique accomplishes that without any qualms. We also witness many symbolisms and subtle messages within the war epic. When oil spills out, everyone’s face is covered in oil and one soldier suffocates under the fire and dies too. But this is where Nolan tries to subtly hint at how we are destroying the mother nature and suffocating under it’s wrath. We need her and she needs us. Rather we look to use her and then never care about her health. Hence, he warned us there to understand the importance.
While the final monolog goes on in the climax, we get many cutaways, but when Hardy burns the Spitfire plane is the ultimate point of symbolism. Here he hints that this incident ignited the fire in the allied forces to believe in themselves and thus, even though the war lasted another four-years, we only hear about retaliation but not about cowardice. He asks to even ignite the same fire to keep us alive in a very negative world.
Nolan’s thoughts don’t end there, his mastery in using complexity and nonlinearity to give a satisfactory moment works here too. He brings everything into one culmination but then he tries to play with the perspectives. You don’t even realize that you are watching the same scene from another person’s perspective until you keenly observe. Even when you do, you are immersed into the environment so much that, Hardy’s last fire makes you happy, A blind man saying survival is all that matters, sticks with you and then a colonel, decides to stay for his allied forces men even though he can go away from the battle front. They make the movie great and such moments become great because of the brilliant build up and tension that Nolan creates using smaller set pieces and authentic ones at that.
People had complained about lead characterizations not having enough background detailing to feel for these characters. There was no need for char development here. How much does a person really change in one hour, one day on the boat or one week on the beach? There were no real reasons to develop anyone’s character. Nothing was added to their lives that weren’t already there, nothing forced them to deal with these situations. Here strength of the film was the character study, not character development. For example, foot-loggers deal with war and how far they would go to stay alive / Seeing how a sailor deal with his personal crisis and choose whether to save the one or the many / Seeing a pilot dealing with low fuel problem and whether to stay and fight or return home and refuel. Every actor in the movie consistent throughout the film, including the guy from the one direction.
I saw Dunkirk as it was meant to be seen, on a two storey IMAX screen (In Mumbai), has striations with images conveying sheer vastness and visceral movie experience: The passage of time; The nature of war; Understanding horrors of humanity in most trigger-happy hours; Trapped out soldiers at sea; Tension in spitfire through glass canopies, which ranks as the solid accomplishment of Nolan with Hoyte Van Hoytema in this visual mode. The pacing and editing by Lee Smith are so ruthless that there isn’t a single lull moment in its sharp 107 minutes runtime. The editing and camera movement force us to hold our breath and hope for the best. On the other hand, Hans Zimmer’s palpitation inducing score (on 12000 watt sound) is the splanchnic heartbeat of the film, rattling through you and sucking you into the drama (Esp. loved the sound of Stuka bombers & ticking time); the moment Edward Elgar theme diddles, in the end, provides some priceless moments of hope & survival.
When you sit down to analyze, why a Nolan film is great, you tend to ask yourself why a Ramayana is said to be great? Why is a Steven Spielberg film rated the highest? How come Quentin Tarantino manages a great interest with such huge verses of dialogue? Well, the answer is Simple, the tales resemble life and life yet times, can be gorgeous and beautiful too even at its toughest moments. All you need is an eye and conviction to experiment and belief to drive away from the routine, to give a new ‘your’ stamp to the emotion.
Many of makers say there are only seven stories and nine emotions. We have to work around them. Even for Nolan the emotions are nine and stories are seven, but he is able to push the envelope as much as he can to make them look epic and interesting, at the same time novel and original. So, all we do seems to be giving out excuses for doing something we think we are perfect at while the truth is the perfection is achieved only when you experiment and fear of failure pushes you to take the leap like the Batman in The Dark Knight Rises to come out of the pits. When can we come out of them? One wonders!