In Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg bookended the film with two incredible scenes that depict the true horror of war. You beg the question: is anything worth this? But there’s a story in between; you get about two hours to breathe. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk removes your breath. Aaron Sorkin says that the two most important components of storytelling are intention (what a character wants) and obstacle (what’s getting in their way).
The entirety of Dunkirk is: intention — stay alive, obstacle – it’s war. His characters are a blank canvas on which Nolan paints a portrait of the human act of survival. The ensemble cast is a combination of well-known and unknown actors; the result is everyone feels as one. Martin Sheen was cast as Willard in Apocalypse Now (the greatest war movie ever) for his ability to play a blank-reflection, letting us project our emotions onto his, creating an out of body experience. Nolan shapes this same style in performance from the ensemble, forcing you to work in unison with them.
You’re plugged into the Allied perspective, but surprisingly, you never feel a hint of hate for those attacking you. Your instincts remove the ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ and the divide between the two sides in battle disintegrates. This is just people doing jobs…jobs we wish never reach those levels of employment again.
Where 1917 attempted to immerse you in a POV with its “one-shot,” Dunkirk, by contrast, used rapid-fire editing. The result is total cinema. In the words of Martin Scorsese, “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” Dunkirk abides to this theory: there are no blood or guts. The deaths feel more day-to-day, creating a chaotic normality that is truly terrifying.