This late after its initial release (though there is indeed the possibility of an Oscar season rerun given its certainty in the Best Picture slate at this point in a weak year), it doesn’t really matter to housekeep what format exactly I saw Christopher Nolan’s World War II picture Dunkirk or what I’d recommend it in. But just for formality’s sake, I may as well state I was lucky enough to catch it in both regular 70mm projection and in IMAX digital format*. And celluloid purists be damned, after watching it in IMAX, I cannot imagine living without bigger format accommodating the full breadth of most of the imagery (one of the storylines most obviously was not shot on IMAX due to the clear logistics of the scene and so it’s in a 2.20:1 format opposed to the rest of the IMAX 1.90:1. The switch may be jarring to some, but what isn’t kind of jarring about Nolan and editor Lee Smith’s choice of editing style, anyway? I’ll get to that in a bit, but I just want to point out that while most of the imagery cut by the popular 70mm 2.20:1 version of the film is essentially empty space of sea and sky, that goes a long way in implying the length and distance our characters have from safety. Which ratchets up the tension in an anxious way.
That tension coming from portraying the real-life 1940 evacuation of British soldiers from the French shore of Dunkirk as the unseen German forces surround them during their invasion of France in World War II. And being a Christopher Nolan film, one of the mainstream filmmakers most fascinated with playing around narrative structure, the story of Dunkirk’s desperate waiting game and evacuation is told through three different strands and timespans: The Mole, following a week of the novel-named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to find a way out of the mass of sitting ducks that is British soldiers trapped on the beach with on-edge private Alex (Harry Styles) and the uncommunicative Gibson (Aneurin Barnard). The Sea, following a day of the civilian ships commissioned from Weymouth to help the evacuation effort, amongst them Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan), who end up finding a shell-shocked soldier stranded in the ocean (Cillian Murphy) who tries to force them to turn away from Dunkirk. And the Air, following three spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, and an uncredited Michael Caine in order of importance) as they fly for an hour to give air support to the departing ships and protect them from the hawking German stukas.
The intention is clear – Nolan wants a comprehensive look at the experience of the fearful lives in one of the most fearful moments in European history – made all the more clearer in the fact that none of these characters have much to inner life within them except the desire not to die, leading more to audience proxies for experiential intensity than any deep entities. Such was the source of much criticism towards Dunkirk and while they’re entitled to their opinion, I don’t really have a problem with it. I’m sure most audiences can relate to not wanting to die.
I’d be lying if I said I found the exercise a complete success, though To begin with, I can’t really read a logic to Lee Smith’s cross-cutting between the timelines. There’s not enough incident to the Mole storyline to believe the whole thing spans a week without narratively jumping a few days while the Air storyline is just an extended flight sequence with occasional interruption by Stuka fire. Neil Fulwood at Agitation of the Mind made mention of peripheral moments in the Mole storyline such as the bodies returning with the changing tide that could have been given more room to allow a tapestry of experiences, rather than just keeping it entirely restrained to two points of view – Tommy or the frustratingly patient commanding officer Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). Smith doesn’t lose all that much momentum, but the temporal parameters just aren’t well-suited by his cutting.
That said, there is payoff. Significant payoff, one of the highlight sequences in 2017 summer cinema where the film is aware of the exact timepoint where the three storylines will be colliding and not only is the moment heightened and intense, but the movie’s anticipation of this begins to double down on pacing into the moment like a quickening perception of time, the sort of “holy shit!” fright you get entering a car crash. And boy oh boy does somebody have to give Smith all the credit for that.
Credit as well given to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema in providing the sober reality of the entrapped situation with sandy greys and browns and blues without ever losing the sharpness of the imagery with the delicacy of a war photograph. The blues only inhabit the empty distance when Bolton declares how easily he can see home from the port. And aiding that photography in filling in the atmosphere is a sound mix of distant booms and explosions to jolt the viewer’s heart for every time the Germans thwart the desperate British troops’ runs for safety for punctuation or promise an endless chaos even beyond our characters’ occasional apparent safety. Or the stuka sirens alone signifying the dread growing in the coming gunfire to rain on our helpless subjects, doing a better job of that than the atonal paste of noise that Hans Zimmer’s score attempts to provide and then tries to pile on the hamfisted nature by establishing a progressive beat click. Beyond Zimmer’s work, Nolan and company have provided a comprehensive observation of the terrors of Dunkirk that pulls every clear technique short of gore to interject anxiety and stress into the film.
Dunkirk is truly not a waiting game of a movie, it’s full of motion and energy in a despairing and dire premise. And that energy forces the sort of violent shakes that an audience must respond to. It’s the sort of detached presentation that you forget the whole context until its second-to-last note of a bored reading of Churchill’s speech, but it’s not devoid of sentiment when it opens with a character who we are meant to assume will wipe his ass with Nazi propaganda or a character who we sadly witness die is venerated by his local paper. And it’s not as though the actors don’t do what they can to allow their sense of self shade the characters’ response as human (best performed by Rylance, Styles, Branagh, and Keough in that order). But it is a schematic adaptation of a historical event transformed into a vehicle for audience fright without any nationalism or patriotism (probably ideal in the context of Brexit). Some may find that a bit exploitative, but for me, at least on my first two viewings, I found it thrilling enough to bring me to empathize with every single face in the crowd of soldiers on that beach.
*I was indeed frustrated that the sole South Florida IMAX at the Ft. Lauderdale Museum of Science and Discovery didn’t have it in IMAX 70mm, but there’s a very embarrassing rumor that explains why.