-Before I begin, this is not a return. This is an exception.-
If someone was to ask me when I first became a Christopher Nolan fan, I would not be able to answer honestly. I know, beyond any doubt, the first Nolan film I saw was The Prestige (2006), as my sister really enjoyed the film and wanted to show my mother and I. After that, I saw The Dark Knight (2008) a year after its release, and was excited to see Inception when it released in 2010.
However, at no point in seeing any of those films did I care to look at who had made them. Sometime over the next two years I came to learn of Nolan as The Dark Knight Rises was set to release in mid-2012. By the time that film came out, I knew who he was and appreciated his work.
Then came 2014, and out came Interstellar. I was exceptionally excited to see that film, and ended up doing so three separate times in theaters, and own multiple versions of the film. I even went back and watched Nolan’s older films Memento (2000), and Insomnia (2002).
If his name is attached to a film, I will see it. I feel such about no other director. Part of the reason for this, part of why I like him so much, is because he focuses more on emotion and feeling. The story is not always so important, and even then, it is. Memento is about the loss of one’s own self, and what one might be willing to do to make themselves happy. Insomnia is about self-doubt and overcoming one’s one demons. Inception is about what one would do for family, and Interstellar is about how strong a family bond, how strong love really is. I will always argue most people completely misunderstood the point of Interstellar.
With this in mind, I was not the least bit surprised when I first saw a trailer for his latest movie, Dunkirk. This is a man who has only done completely fictional stories thus far. He even made some of the best comic book movies out there. (At least The Dark Knight. The other two are debatable.) His films were always epic, big, and mysterious.
-I was going to write ‘Dunkirk, the actual event was not any of those.’ But as I thought about it, I realized it was all three.-
I can understand why Nolan chose to make this film. Earlier today, I went to go see it. It is the shortest film Nolan has released, at only 1 hour 46 minutes. A full hour shorter than Interstellar. I went to a mid-afternoon showing with my roommate as we believed the theater would not be too full. When we got there, it was not packed, but it was certainly occupied. Most of the attendees were elderly. In fact, I was very likely the youngest person in that theater.
Not wanting to spend money I did not have on concessions, I snuck in a small soda can, keeping it in my jacket pocket. I waited for the film to start as to not be heard opening it. There were no trailers playing. No pre-show. This was because we were seeing the 70mm version of the film, meaning a projector change simply would not be possible, so anything we were to see would have to be on the film reel.
It was eerie being in a theater with nothing playing. With the screen off. With nothing. The suddenly, a trailer starts. Blade Runner 2049. It fades out, and the film starts. It starts so simply. A few soldiers walking down the street. Pamphlets are falling from the sky. One of soldiers grabs a pamphlet. It is German propaganda stating the have the beach surrounded.
The soldier grabs some of the pamphlets, crumbling them, but keeps them. He needs to go the bathroom. It’s quiet. The soldiers are in no hurry, but the music composed by the immaculate Hans Zimmer has immediately set an uneasy tone.
Gunshot. The soldier starts to run. He meets up with the four others. We follow behind as they continue to run. Gunshot. One down. Gunshot. Two down. Gunshot. Three down. Gunshot. Four down. We’re left with just our soldier, as he desperately climbs over a fence. A spray of bullets. He loads his gun. More bullets break through the fence. He turns around and shoots.
He’s firing blindly. He gives up, turns around, and climbs another fence, all while still being shot at. More gunfire. Machine gun. He raises his hands, screaming, “BRITISH! BRITISH!” The firing stops and we see a barrier is set up. One of the soldiers manning it motions him to run over. He does. It’s the french. He looks at the men, and more gunfire rains down on all of them. The french return fire. Our soldier runs.
He goes through a small alley, emerging on the beach. It is covered in soldiers. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers. All with nowhere to go. They have to sit and wait.
And that is just the opening sequence. A plan comes in, bombing those waiting. Then another, and it manages to sink the medical boat they are using to help evacuate. Our soldier, and the French one he meets, are kicked off. They manage to get on another boat, but are still forced to wait to evacuate as that boat sinks. They move with a group of others to wait inside a small boat that has been grounded, as once the tide returns, it will be able to float. They are sitting ducks as the Germans use it for target practice, and barely manage to set sail, but the bullet holes cause too much damage, and they are forced to evacuate. The French man does not survive.
That’s not even to speak of the civilian storyline, or that of Cillian Murphy’s character, or that of Tom Hardy’s. All which intersect in an interesting manner as the film is not told linearly. It begins as I wrote above. Then it cuts to the civilian perspective. A man, his son, and the son’s friend going out to help those at Dunkirk. They pick up Cillian Murphy as he sits alone on top of overturned boat.
We then cut to a story of a few soldiers going through the same hell, but being rescued by a small boat. Except, it is suddenly night time. The story of the soldier on the beach, the pilots in the air, and the civilian boat take place in the day, and suddenly this fourth story is at night. It keeps cutting back and forth between the different perspectives. We see the pilots in a dogfight. One of them gets hit, and goes for a crash landing. The remaining pilot, Tom Hardy, waves as the crashed man appears to be OK.
Then, later in the film, we see that same dogfight, from the perspective of the civilian boat. We learn the crashed pilot was not OK, but was drowning, and the civilians helped save him. This style continues. We see the same events happen from different perspectives. Including learning that the night scenes were showing how Cillian Murphy ended up on that overturned boat.
This film was phenomenal, and above all, it was absolutely intense. There is no other way to put it. This film was intense. Hans Zimmer’s score is perfect. It is there when it should be, and silent when it needs to be. It constantly builds, and the only moment of relief in his music comes when we finally see the civilian boats arrive at Dunkirk. That scene was filmed amazingly as the civilians on the boats stood strong like statues and they headed into a war.
This film moved me. For reasons a plenty. First, it felt very, very real. The sound was very real. When the plane’s were shot, they didn’t explode. They failed as they actually would have. When a boat was bombed, it was portrayed as real boat being bombed would be. The shell shock, the fear, the helplessness, it was all so real. All, while never once seeing the enemy. We see Nazi planes, but never a person. Not once in the film do we see the face of a Nazi soldier.
Second, there was a moment during the film when they showed a shot of all the men on the beach. It would not be appropriate to say it was a quiet part of the film, but certainly a slightly-more-calm moment. I looked at all the men, and I realized the only reason I was able to sit there in that theater and watch this film was because those men survived.
I cried. To see what all those men had to go through, just to survive, it got to me. These were men who were never safe on that beach, and once they finally got a boat, they still were not safe. They still had to make it across the sea to Britain, where they were still not safe. How could they be? How could they feel safe?
But they did not just survive. They returned to a home they could not feel safe at, survived for FOUR more years, before they returned to France, knowing what was there, knowing what it was like, and retook it, and then continued marching on.
Third, for obvious reasons it reminded me of Boatlift, the evacuation of Manhattan through the use of civilian boats during the September 11th terrorist attacks. I knew almost nothing about Dunkirk prior to seeing this film. I had heard the name, but did not really know what happened. I do remember 9/11, I do remember that evacuation, and because of that, I felt like I could understand the civilian aspect of this film just a little bit better.
Fourth, I am a pacifist. I do not hide that. This film was more than just a film. It was reason. I advocate for peace, on all fronts (perhaps not as strongly as I should) so that no one ever has to go through what these men went through. Not just Dunkirk, but war.
When the film ended, I could not say anything. I was not entirely sure what to say. The lights came up, I walked to the stairs and down to the aisle, and I looked upon the attendees. That is when I realized what I had been blind to before. Most of them were veterans. I cannot even begin to imagine what this film must have been like for them.
Dunkirk is one of the best films I have ever seen, but I hesitate to call it a film. It is more of an experience. One I could have because those men on that beach survived.
-I do want to mention something I am sure will be brought up. Normally I would attempt to use the character names when speaking of a film, but we really don’t learn any. The main soldier’s name is never said. Cillian’s Murphy’s isn’t either. The father on the civilian boat isn’t even given a name. That’s not just me. The father is credited as ‘Mr. Dawson’, and Cillian Murphy is credited as ‘Shivering Soldier’. They are literally not given names, and that is done so intentionally of course.-
Chester Bennington, you made great music. You helped many. I hope you have found peace.
Mariana San Miguel, it has been four years now. It’s not gotten any easier. Thank you for dancing with me to the Mexican Medley. Thank you for being a joy to this world. I miss you dearly, and I often times find myself still looking up to the stars hoping to find that small little window you’re looking down from.