War is hell: death, destruction and man’s ugliest impulses are on display. Ultimately, everyone pays a heavy price- the victor and vanquished alike.
It’s also been the subject of an endless series of movies, books and television specials. Most are bad, not because of the gore and violence and action that have been the hallmark of war movies that have had box office success.
They’re mostly bad because a majority are seen from the winner’s point of view. Violence against a perceived enemy is glorified while setbacks and defeats inflicted by them are seen as tragic events. There are no moral ambiguities, no grey areas- it’s always black and white, good versus evil, etc. It’s a reductionism that Hollywood studios can’t seem to avoid.
Don’t count Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic, “Dunkirk”, as one of tinseltown’s run-of-the-mill war movies. It’s a masterpiece that explores the complexities of war and the psychology of a desperate humanity that’s on the verge of defeat. The two-minute previews that you can readily stream on the internet cannot do justice to the breadth and majesty of the director’s vision.
Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business show on CGTN America. His analysis represents his views alone.
Dunkirk’s scale and feel is a throwback to the era of big-budget movies, when CGI didn’t exist. He even shot it in 70mm film- a standard long abandoned by Hollywood. The format provides a wider shot and greater detail. Admittedly, there were some brief parts where special effects were used. Most of it was real- as Nolan blew up real warships, airplanes, and structures. Actors’ reactions and looks of fear are more genuine when things are exploding all around them.
But the movie really sets itself apart in how it develops the narrative. There are several main arcs, and within them are little subplots. The director could have focused solely on the main story- evacuating the some 400,000 British soldiers cornered by the German forces- and made a great film.
However, Nolan is a generational talent. As a storyteller, he’s probably at the height of his powers. He takes all of Dunkirk’s narratives and subplots and weaves them all together- without even paying mind to the chronology of events. He goes forwards and backwards in time during the film and somehow makes it work.
Furthermore, Dunkirk is thematically dense: it tackles the purpose and ends of war, the human capacity for courage and cowardice, race relations, military strategy, just to name a few. Not once did the film feel like it was trying to do too much. What’s even more mind bogglingly impressive is that Nolan manages to squeeze the epic into a very lean and taut hour and 45 minutes.
Nolan also likes playing around with time in his movies- either as topic within the film or using it as a narrative tool. One just has to look at his body of work and you can see that he’s mastered that skill.
In one of his earlier films “Memento”, Nolan tells the story in reverse (starting from the climax and denouement and then working his way backwards).
In “Inception” and “Interstellar”- he approaches time like its malleable. He’s probably the only director who tackles quantum physics, the theory of relativity and wormholes in movies and makes it comprehensible.
But Nolan’s challenge in telling the story of Dunkirk didn’t just lie in tying such disparate stories together, he also had to make the viewer care for the fate of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers stranded on a beach. Before the movie was released, this writer had no idea such a massive evacuation took place during World War II.
He makes you pay attention by putting together probably one of the most memorable opening film sequences of all time. The tension he creates in the first half hour of the movie can put anyone on edge. The fear, desperation and urgency was almost palpable in the theater. And he does it without much dialog between the characters.
Nolan’s strongest movie to date also benefited from the ensemble cast he put together. His frequent collaborators pitch in: Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine and Tom Hardy. He also cast relative unknowns to play some of the main characters- and all of them shine.
Who knew Harry Styles (from pop supergroup One Direction) could act? But it’s Tom Hardy who steals the show. Without revealing any spoilers, I’ve never seen an actor express such a range of emotions just by moving his eyes and head around. You don’t even see his whole face for most of the time he’s on screen.
However Dunkirk also works because its action sequences are some of the most exhilarating this writer has ever seen. Unlike its recent peers (war porn movies like Lone Survivor and 13th Hour), he imbues the film with a grim realism combined with set pieces that will be endlessly dissected and discussed by film nerds and majors.
In the end, Dunkirk is about defeat and that’s what sets Nolan’s film apart from most big-budget war movies. Ultimately, the 1940 evacuation is also about the U.K.’s humiliation by Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, the feat of moving that mass of humanity without incurring heavy losses is nothing short of a miracle.
Dunkirk also sets itself apart because its main protagonists are flawed human beings. They’re no heroes. If anything, they’re cowardly, shellshocked men who are more interested in saving themselves at any cost.
Unlike other war movies however, Nolan probably wasn’t interested in edifying and portraying characters who are heroic and selfless like so many of his peers who’ve made war movies. In a genre that’s more black and white, his version is nicely differentiated gray.
Dunkirk’s main message of war being ugly, devastating and dehumanizing is plain to see. In such conflagrations and desperation our shortcomings and flaws are laid bare.