‘Dunkirk’ – Overwhelming Immersion | Film Review
Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan‘s latest addition to his oeuvre of modern classics, is a suffocating, teeth-clenching experience, encasing audiences within the cacophony of anarchy it creates.
Often, a war film seeks to find a story within the grander facets of the war, or wants to send a pro-war or anti-war message. Perhaps the best aspect of Nolan’s Dunkirk is that it doesn’t feel the need to dictate any sort of message nor, in a way, any sort of story. One could probably read this as an anti- as much as a pro-war film, which is how Nolan succeeds here. Ostensibly, it is neither.
Instead, it quickly places us within the hectic confusion of Dunkirk and forces us into what feels like real-time reacting, much like the soldiers on the beaches. We’re removed from what led to the war and the fallout from it, instead war is reduced to people making split-second decisions amid chaos that might cost thousands of lives.
It’s about reacting to potential death as it bears down on you, as opposed to a political view of war. Rather than attempting to elucidate the how and why war came about, it simply depicts it as something to be survived, whether we like it or not.
Character development is minimal by design as faces on the beach become a blur, each person simply driven to stay alive at all costs. This inevitably leads to the far less patriotic depiction of soldiers, with paranoia and self-preservation sinking into them, even turning against their fellow man at points as each individual seeks to stay alive.
No longer is everyone depicted as the typical gung-ho Nazi killers, instead they’re just scared boys who want to go home even if it means a fellow soldier must perish ahead of them.
This film is loud. Loud in volume, but mostly loud in its assault on the senses. Wall-to-wall noise and a stunning score by Hans Zimmer makes this feel like one massive scene elongated for two hours. There’s no scene transitions, act breaks, or room to breathe; in fact, the final shot may be the only one in the film with total silence.
The visual lack of “the enemy” within the film makes it a far more introspective experience than most in the genre, instead becoming about your own decisions within battle and how you’ll be perceived by the people back home.
One soldier laments that they’ll be spat on once they return for failing in their objective, which is an interesting point of view not often explored and far removed from the patriotic, sometimes jingoistic attitudes in war films. Instead of reveling in victory for the country, surviving the war is viewed with pride and relief for people still alive amid devastation.
It’s that focus on the human aspects of war; how its effects can destroy the mind and turn people against each other, yet at the same time how people can find strength and bravery within a barrage of chaos that makes Nolan’s film transcend the war genre, instead using its setting as a framing device for an examination of ordinary people forced into a crisis.
Predictably, the film looks superb. Masses of bodies engulf the frame, naturally adding to the magnitude of the ordeal. Bodies constantly being buried or washing back up to shore in the aftermath of ear-drum-shattering explosions makes a point that while this is a film focusing on the immersion and immediacy of war, at the same time it’s about the effects post-explosion, post-bombs being dropped.
We may not know their names, but we do feel the heaviness of people’s lives ending in a split second, the effects of a torpedo barrelling into the side of a ship and the horror of being submerged within water, needing to take a breath but knowing that if you do you’ll be burned alive by the oil-induced flames above.
By the end, it’s hard not to feel absolutely ravaged by the audiovisual onslaught.
There’s a reading of a speech that perhaps just tilts the film a little towards the flag-waving ending it didn’t really need, though Winston Churchill’s message does tie in to the theme of pure survival over attack, and people employing sacrifice and smarts over the oft-seen depiction of soldiers as visceral killing machines.
Dunkirk might be the film of the year so far. It might be Nolan’s most mature film, and it also might be his very best.