One of the most evocative scenes which first dropped from the trailers was the deserted street in the port of Dunkirk. Walking away from the camera, six fragile soldiers are scrounging for water and smokes. The gigantic buildings impose their enormity on the fragility of the war torn port town. Slips of paper swirling around the soldiers like leaves in autumn, one of the members take a grab at one of them. Upon close inspection, the paper is from the Germans with a very ominous message, which is written in English. Shot with the 70 mm IMAX cameras, the hauntingly beautiful portrayal of a forlorn street sets the precedence without any usage of dialogues.
Dunkirk, the recent addition to the filmography of Christopher Nolan, comes three years after Interstellar (2014). This movie is based on the real life incident of evacuation of nearly 400,000 English and French soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, in the midst of World War II. Deriving its elements from the evacuation named Operation Dynamo, and also from the Battle of Dunkirk, Dunkirk sets a benchmark in the history of war movies.
Surrounded by the Germans on all sides, the evacuation of the Allied soldiers from Dunkirk is marked as the greatest evacuation of all times, which later shaped the entire world. Faced with surrender or complete annihilation, this seemingly impossible rescue operation changed the course of history, forever.
Unlike other war movies, Dunkirk doesn’t tries to focus on the individual characters and their sentimentality. It dives straight into the war. Like every other Nolan movie, Dunkirk doesn’t wastes any time on opening credits and showcases the horrors of war to the audience. Right from the opening scene in the deserted street, this movie is relentless, terrifying and visceral. Thousands of Allied soldiers are massed on the beaches of Dunkirk in neat, straight queues with just one mission – to survive. The picturesque aerial shots of the stark beach filled with soldiers portray the harsh realities of war – loneliness and despair. Like the last living souls on the planet, these moments create a haunting imagery of the war. Amidst so many sequences, the usage of 70 mm IMAX cameras easily draws the audience towards a story which has minimal usage of dialogues.
Dunkirk uses three different timelines running in parallel to convey the story. The evacuation on the beach, the focus on a civilian boat which has been called for rescue and the heroics of the Air Force run simultaneously in this intense and unrelenting movie. After the opening sequence in the deserted street, the evacuation directly follows it with a particular soldier in focus. Scarcely a word has been uttered till this point. The fine texture cameras used in the movie rely heavily on the surroundings and the movements of the surviving soldiers. Fatigued, despair and isolated, the focus on the minute details is able to deliver a stunning portrayal of the soldiers without relying on dialogues.
The focus later on changes to the civilian boat which has been called for rescue. The father-son duo along with an underage boy man the boat and sail towards the war ravaged shores of Dunkirk. This portion of the triptych story line offers considerable amount of human interaction, when compared with the other two story lines. The transition from the ocean to the skies plays out brilliantly. The events on the sea unfold in a week while the air sequence plays out in a single hour. Nolan’s genius becomes crystal clear when the three story lines running simultaneously amalgamate with grace, yet, manages to keep the audience at the edge of their seats.
The aerial dogfight scenes in which British Spitfires battle against the German planes are phenomenal. Without any over the top action, Nolan keeps the fight realistic and gritty. The Spitfires racing against time to save the British vessels from the German planes is a scene to behold. Yet, unlike other war movies, the arrival of the Air Force doesn’t instils a strong hope, but rather, acts like a flickering light of hope in the cold and unforgiving shores of Dunkirk.
From his previous collaborations with Nolan, Hans Zimmer has yet again produced a masterpiece which gels easily with the tone of the movie. The constant ticking of a clock throughout the movie delivers the thrill which makes this movie one of the best works of Nolan. Zimmer’s soundtrack is haunting and creates a feeling of claustrophobia which elevates the experience to a whole new level.
Another stroke of genius in this movie would be the portrayal of the belligerents. Nolan’s creative vision ensured that not a single soldier of the Nazi Germany would be present on the screen. This anonymity of the antagonists creates a deeper sense of fear which seeps gradually till the end. The absence of the villain(s) in this movie manages to produce a terrifying enemy – almost like that of an omnipotent assassin who is never found.
Christopher Nolan’s attention to minute details is what makes this movie a work of art. Right from the cinematography to the sound effects, Dunkirk has got it all correct. From deafening gun shots to the fluttering of papers, from exploding dive bombs to the crashing of waves, the detailing makes this movie truly terrifying. The minimal usage of Computer Generated Imagery in the movie creates a visible difference in the movie. The usage of hundreds of extras to the actual vessels and planes used in the evacuation just goes a step further to demonstrate the dedication of Christopher Nolan in the making of this movie.
The one arguable flaw in this movie would be the lack of drama. In Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the focus was entirely on a handful of characters trapped in a horrific war. The plight of human conditions in wars provides an essential humanizing touch to a relentless and unforgiving war movie. But in Dunkirk, the focus never strays away from the horrors of war. This cool detachment of Nolan goes a step further by making the main characters anonymous till the very end. While this might be a disappointment for some movie buffs, the poignant narrative added with beautiful cinematography can overcome this shortcoming for others.
Dunkirk as a war movie puts its entire emphasis on the experience of war rather than going into details of the strategy or the matters of politics. The focus on the collective plight of desperate soldiers instead on a single titular character makes this movie entirely different from the movies in the same war genre. The symbolism in the movies to portray despair and isolation on the stark beaches of Dunkirk also manages to instil hope and optimism. The conflagration of a British Spitfire on a beach doesn’t marks surrender, but, portrays the resistance and the fires of war yet to come. Dunkirk doesn’t want you to revel in the momentary triumph, but, to remind that the war against evil has just begun.
Dunkirk is now in theaters.
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