Christopher Nolan returns to the big screen after three years to redefine the Hollywood approach towards a war film, by stripping away the convoluted plot to retake a land and focusing on the experience of a single battle. Presented in Nolan’s unique method of storytelling, the simple story of civilians lending a hand in the evacuations of Dunkirk is given new light and perspectives to give an all-rounded cinematic experience.
Nolan has, in the past, shown his interest in the lesser-thought. He tackled the phenomenon of dreams in Inception, dived into the superhero psyche in the Dark Knight trilogy, and explored time and space travel in Interstellar. This time, the fame director looks at how a defeat of a battle can still be heroic at the end. To that end, Nolan focuses on the on-the-ground experiences of the events at Dunkirk through three perspectives; the civilian participants starring Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), the pilots in the sky starring Nolan-alumni Tom Hardy (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises), and the soldiers stuck on the beaches of Dunkirk starring newcomer Fionn Whitehead. While the ensemble cast – even the sceptical Harry Styles – assures audiences of a great performance, at the end it is not the actors that brought the film to life, but the cinematic experience that does. The resulting film is not just a retelling of a relatively popular story among history buffs, but an immersive experience of its own kind.
A great obstacle in cinematic storytelling is that the events of Dunkirk are not exactly as cinematically action-packed like the famous D-Day Landings, as portrayed in films and TV shows like Saving Private Ryan or The Pacific. In fact, this film focuses less on explosive action – albeit still the occasional presence of bombing runs – and instead, draws the audience into the story through sound effects, panoramic views and appropriately timed music by Hans Zimmer. The reduced use of dialogue sets Nolan’s rendition of a war film vastly different from those that had come before his. Utilising the old trick of “Show, not Tell”, Nolan intensifies on suspense and experiential action towards the surrounding elements rather than interpersonal relations.
Some believe that Nolan’s films are less about storytelling and more on the cinematic experience. But one would not be wrong to say that he could pull off both too. Dunkirk’s fractured non-linear method of storytelling is – in typical Nolan fashion – not exactly understandable without repeated viewing. In the first viewing, one might think that this film lacks a proper story or has too many timelines to be coherent. However, on a deeper level, and perhaps with a repeated viewing, one might discover that Nolan’s intention was never to bloat a simple narrative like Dunkirk’s, but to present an experiential film exploring what dictates heroism. Is heroism about winning a battle, or is it making sure someone else survives one for another day? Nolan may not be the first to present a compelling war film, but his ability to make one question what is his purpose of making one is pure Nolan magic.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has been helmed by many critics as his best to date, but every Nolan film has its own unique vision and cinematic experience that is unlike any other. While the film does possess of the signature Nolan tropes like a fractured timeline, unconventional subjects of interest and music by Hans Zimmer, its unique blend of simplicity in delivery, 70mm panoramic cinematography and experiential suspense does make Dunkirk one of the most unique cinematic experience to date, even by Nolan standards.