War films are not my genre. The inherent problem, as I see it, is that there is no way to truly recreate the overwhelming and traumatic experience of war for a group of people in a comfy cinema. The genre therefore usually chooses to fall into the sensationalist, somewhat poeticised view of war we saw in Hacksaw Ridge last year (which is not a bad film by any measure). The closest it gets to criticism of its setting is usually a wet slap round the face with the long-dead “war is bad” motif expounded by Christ-like side characters.
But Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk seems to actively be fighting to overturn this tradition with a rawness not seen since the opening scenes of the timeless Saving Private Ryan. Rather than falling into sensationalism, this film attempts to deliver a film that builds tension with every scene. It is unrelenting, with every aspect of production pushing us further into what becomes a quite dizzying experience.
The most effective feature of this film is its score. Hans Zimmer remains a tour de force for the industry, and this film is a reassurance that despite his age he’s still bringing new ideas. A recent video by Vox exposed one of the more accessible techniques he employs to ensure a constantly rising sense of tension that really doesn’t stop building until the credits roll. After establishing and somewhat overusing his trademark “bwah” effect, the absence of it in this score for subtler atmospheric effects speaks testament to Zimmer’s role within a decidedly singular vision for this war film.
This definitively feels like a Christopher Nolan film; it has his typical quiet-but-epic feel that can often tread dangerously close to cold and unfeeling. Here it works better than usual, contrasting with the traditional depictions of Dunkirk to bring a sense of abandonment and uncertainty where we usually see good ol’ British resilience on a crowded French coast. The use of familiar and well-loved faces also combats the sometimes limited character development, helping audiences to engage with the characters emotionally by relying on a pre-existing relationship with them (however fleeting). It doesn’t fully undo the lack of defined characteristics for some of the main cast, but seeing the fresh face of Harry Styles smeared with mud definitely added to the sense that anyone at any age could be lost.
That’s not to say this film is perfect. At times the story beats feel as if they fall secondary to the visuals, however masterfully handled they are by Hoytema. A particularly noteworthy example is the resolution for Tom Hardy’s Farrier, where the narrative is noticeably bent to fit an admittedly stunning final shot. As much as I love seeing Hardy’s hulking form silhouetted by a flaming Spitfire, the triumphant landing felt inorganic and contrived especially when a death in the air would have been far more thematically resonant. Similarly, Cillian Murphy’s shivering soldier felt like it served very little purpose beyond making sure the small boats had something to do for the second act of the movie. A film that goes so far with its production to recreate the stresses of war doesn’t need a cliched shellshock victim, and it ends up falling flat.
Technically, Dunkirk is a masterpiece and brings the war film genre into new and exciting territory. As soon as the countdown title cards establish a deadline, Nolan uses every instrument at his disposal to contribute to the emotional momentum. It is lacking in the places where Nolan is often weakest: it lacks tenderness and character bonds. But perhaps that’s intentional, as it certainly contributes to the isolation felt by all 330,000 Allied Troops on that cold coast in 1940. It may not be for everyone and it seems unlikely to win the Best Picture Oscar, but Dunkirk at least brings something new to the war film table.