Making a war film predominantly from the perspective of one side is often problematic. The vilification of the ‘other’, if handled clumsily, can be too easy to indulge in the absence of its own narrative arc. That may account for why it feels as if there are noticeably more films about WWII than there are The First. Rightly or wrongly, WWII lends itself more comfortably to the ‘good-versus-evil’ thrust that a lot films, especially action movies, rely on.
Christopher Nolan completely omits the Axis forces from his time bomb war epic, Dunkirk, and thus avoids this pitfall quite brilliantly. Nolan takes the grandness of the Dunkirk evacuation and scales it down into three smaller stories running simultaneously – a week on Dunkirk; a day on a boat headed there; an hour in a Spitfire – as we pay witness to all the horrors of warfare from an intimate perspective. Claustrophobic, even, as the camera sits often at ground level on the beach, or packed tightly on a boat or Spitfire.
The absence of a face for the aggressors only heightens the sense of impending doom that awaits the soldiers marooned on the beaches of Dunkirk. We know them mostly by their terrifying aerial assaults and one scene, involving a number of soldiers hiding in a boat as Germans use it for target practice, is so effective because the camera feels equally trapped inside. Nolan isn’t creating pantomime villains of the Germans and the lack of screen time should not be misconstrued as positioning them as the cold, faceless evildoers. We don’t sit and hope for the characters to destroy their enemies, we simply hope to see them escape with their lives.
This march to decimation couldn’t find a better score than the one Hans Zimmer has produced here. Nolan’s penchant for playing with time is evident from Dunkirk’s structure and Zimmer obliges with a pulsing, metronomic accompaniment. Quiet moments are rare and when the overwhelming score settle down briefly, we’re left with that anxious ticking. It’s a ceaseless, overbearing soundtrack but it’s supposed to be. The characters aren’t allowed a minute’s reprieve from the bombardment and neither are we. The sound design in general is pretty fantastic – every bullet fired in the film is oppressively loud and violent. The sequences in which Luftwaffe planes screech across the landscape as they shell indiscriminately leaves the mind reeling at how human beings could ever have been expected to exist through something like that.
And while the soundtrack has much to say, it’s conspicuous how little dialogue there is in the 106 minutes. We don’t get to know too much about the Allies on the beach and perhaps it’s because there isn’t anything to know: these are human beings thrown into a situation that cannot be fully comprehended, experiencing such cruelty that it just doesn’t matter whether Soldier X has a girl at home he’s desperate to get back to. These are just a handful of people out of hundreds-of-thousands going through much of the same and Nolan puts us right in it.
It’s with this in mind that Dunkirk falls short with its middle story (titled ‘The Sea’), which follows three civilians – a father, son and young helper – who have answered the call to help rescue the stranded soldiers. Mr, Dawson (the father played by Mark Rylance) is a touch too wide-eyed and naive as he patriotically sails towards Dunkirk. They encounter a shell-shocked soldier played by Cillian Murphy (but could literally have been played by any actor to the same effect), and the emotional impact Nolan is looking for with this character’s plight, especially as it relates to a tragedy that takes place on the boat, feels flat.
But in the presence of everything else it’s a minor quibble. This is grand filmmaking. (8)