Dunkirk and Why It’s So Great: An Observation

Everyone I know who has seen Christopher Nolan’s latest film Dunkirk had the same reaction: They were blown away. I watched it with my dad the other week and I’m still not over it.
He was so impressed by the soundtrack that he added it to his Spotify and played it while we were cooking this week. Rarely have we watched a film together that had him talking about it for days.
As for me I had high expectations walking into this movie and it took me approximately 5 minutes to know that my expectations where adequate and maybe 5 more to know that the movie would completely dazed me.

Now I’m a little bit scared to praise this movies to pieces because I’m worrying that the overwhelming positivity the movie rightfully receives will make people who hate good things start saying it wasn’t that good and then that will become the popular opinion. It really was that good. So here is my amateur observation explaining why.

Dunkirk has no time for glorification, this is no good vs evil story. It shows unity and solidarity, but at the same time it depicts the inhumanity of war.
I’m an avid lover of war movies. I like the drama of it, I like seeing things blow up and the vulnerability it allows in strong characters.
However I can’t stand propaganda and more often than not war movies hold up this certain kind of patriotism that I just cannot stand. This is not that kind of movie.
In no way the cruelty happening is being justified. It has definitely an anti war message.
This film is also not here to attract lovers of gore, there’s hardly any blood, there are wounded people who are patched up and there’s obviously blood on their bandages etc, but this is not a movie about killing each other; it’s a movie about survival.

I think one of the most obvious factors to the mood is the music. There the ticking noise of Christopher Nolan’s watch, which is a fantastic tactic to set the urgency for the soldiers to get off the beach or for the civilian ships to get there to rescue the waiting men. But then there is also the siren like strings that keep you on alert.
I knew there was something about the music when I left the theatre and rightfully so. According to Nolan they used a technique called Shepard tone. Basically it sounds like there is a constantly rising tone, even though it’s not. No wonder you’re stressed throughout the entire film!

I feel like the same technique works for the plots as well. At first I thought there was no classic dramatic structure. Yes, there is the exposition, you get a good idea of the characters, where they are physically, and in what situation they are in. From there on the plots just seemed to rise and rise until the end of the movie.
Now that I’ve thought about it I see it a bit differently.

Musically the climax is during the track ‘Home‘; it’s when the civilian boats arrive at Dunkirk and after what feels like a lifetime of tension you get the relief and a sense of overwhelming happiness.

Story-wise it’s when all plots suddenly align and all the characters appear in the same moment of time. The young soldiers are pulled out of the water by Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and are save on board of the Moonstone.
My dad said until that moment he hadn’t even realised that there were time lapses. You are constantly jumping from one action to another, there is no time for a breather in between so naturally you never worry about what time in the story you are in at the moment, but then there is this satisfaction that suddenly everyone and everything interacts. It’s simply brilliant!

As I stated earlier this is a film about the inhumanity of war and I mean it in a very literal sense. You never get to see a German soldier. The closest you get to seeing them is seeing the planes and hearing the shots. There’s never any actual humans and they are mostly referred to as the enemy. The story leaves no room for a character to loudly curse the Nazis as most WW2 movies do. One thing I’ve noticed about Christopher Nolan films is that they hardly spell anything obvious out for you. Everyone already knows Nazis are horrible, everyone knows British soldiers in WW2 aren’t too keen on them either so it doesn’t need to be said, you see it enough on screen.

As for the characters I’m amazed at how real they feel and how well the actors bring them to life. With no time for backstories you don’t feel like the characters are lacking dimension. You don’t need to know if there is someone waiting for them at home or not, what they’ve done during the war, hell, most of them don’t even have a name in the movie itself!

Cillian Murphy (there’s probably not one day when I don’t praise him) plays ‘shivering soldier’, doesn’t even have a proper name in the end credits. Yet you build up so much compassion for him because you know he’s in shock and disorientated and that he’ll probably suffer from PTSD when he gets home. You know he must have been a caring soul before living through so much trauma.

Mark Rylance’ character does a phenomenal job at fleshing out a father determined to bring the soldiers home with the help of his son. He shows so many emotions towards the air force you just know there had to be more to it until it is revealed, until you understand what drives him to take his boat himself into dangerous waters: he’s a father who lost a son to war, he knows there are many men out there who are the son to someone as well and he has the opportunity to do what he couldn’t do for his own son.

And the young actors are just as brilliant. You don’t need to know how long Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) or Alex (Harry Styles) have been soldiers, what exactly they’ve seen during war. You just know, or rather you can picture Alex having been through some terrible things just by seeing what he will do to survive and get home. That Tommy is young and inexperienced and that he is idealistic or rather loyal to the people that help him.

I could go on about the sheer panic in Jack Lowden’s face when he lands on water and can’t get out, or Tom Hardy playing the composed, well trained pilot, as well as Aneurin Barnard and Barry Keoghan’s performances in general. Christopher Nolan’s casting is as spot on as ever.

Tommy, Alex, George… The characters of this story have the most basic names you could think of. It’s to show how normal these people are. To my surprise my dad said the same thing about the setting as well. He told me he had been to Dunkirk before and that it’s this small place at the sea and there’s nothing special to it. If you don’t know its history you couldn’t tell how many men had feared for their lives there, how they had struggled to stay alive long enough to get home.

No moment is forced. There are films out there that have this one scene it doesn’t want you to forget so it is emphasised a lot. Sometimes that works out great and sometimes it takes away too much of the movie. Dunkirk has a lot of visuals I know I won’t forget easily. The waiting soldiers on the pier all ducking down as they are being attacked. Tommy in the water holding his head, screaming. The shivering soldier asking if the kid will be alright. The burning plane…
I’m sure if I ask someone else they would list some more without even thinking about it. That’s the beauty of a great film.
What do you think?

I’m sure there is a lot more to say about this movie, after all I’m just an observer with no training whatsoever. Feel free to leave a comment adding to this, I’d love to hear some more opinions!



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