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.
The sounds design in the bookended battles of Saving Private Ryan dictate your senses; Nolan takes his battlefield into a new direction, letting the score dictate the pace. Hans Zimmer and Nolan have a chemistry that can pull the wool over your eyes and let you forget logic as you focus on feeling their film (much like Spielberg and John Williams, in fact).
In Dunkirk, they reach a new level in their relationship as Zimmer’s score acts as the pulse of the image and controls when Nolan cuts (like Ennio Morricone did for Sergio Leone) and it’s this craftsmanship from the duo that leaves you breathless.
Nolan’s films are events and can hit big in a cinema but feel they miss the mark at home. And with Dunkirk following the trend of the ‘full-length-action scene-movie’ (like The Raid or Mad Max: Fury Road) that are made to explode with adrenaline onto the big screen, it should have been Nolan’s reckoning. But the simplicity of the story delivers Nolan’s masterpiece.
The script, stripped bare, with minimal dialogue and no need to explain a high concept plot, is focused at showcasing his strength: non-linear storytelling. There are three timelines and it is how they intertwine that pulls the final gutpunch. The first story announces the physical scope the soldiers face, creating the tension.
The second shows the effect of the first, building on the tension to create suspense by addressing the mental side. The third reflects on both to address the heroism, which simultaneously moves and shatters you. Together this triptych feels like a totem spinning on the horror of attempting to survive war.