My loathing of Christopher Nolan’s movies is legendary. Okay, let clarify that a little. My loathing of Nolan’s Batman movies is legendary and post-Batman Begins he should never have been let anywhere near another DC comic. I’m not keen on Inception, haven’t seen The Prestige (yet), thought Interstellar was highly entertaining pretentious garbage and anything else isn’t worth mentioning. I hate the way that because he made a couple of below par Batman movies, he has become a Movie God. Seriously, I don’t understand why he gets such consistent acclaim.
Okay. Now that’s out of the way, let’s move on to a rant about war films.
In my entire cinema going life, I’ve only walked out of four movies. One was the Exorcist (Ha! Fuck you, Kermode!), another, I forget the title of but had one of the McGanns pretending to be a surgeon. That was the plot, by the way. Untrained guy pretends to be surgeon with hilarious consequences…
The other two were Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. Bloody hated them.
Of all the war movies I have seen – and it’s not what you might call my favourite genre anyway – the one that really stayed with me was ‘Come and See’. Horrific. Truly horrific. If you thought the bit at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan was troubling… seriously. Just. Don’t.
And so. Slap the two together and you get…. Christopher Nolan’s War Movie! Yay!
Bloody hell. Where do you start?
Okay, well there’s no real plot. It’s not about character arcs and revelations and becoming a better person. It’s absolutely not the Kenneth More style cosy what-ho war flick, either. There’s a narrative, and a strong one, but it’s not bogged down in all that tedious ‘getting to know you’ nonsense. You’re just thrown in at the deep end and characters emerge by their actions. There’s little in the way of exposition. The movie starts and just damned well gets on with it. From the outset it’s just horror after horror, explosion after explosion, dog-fight after dogfight and in among the carnage are a bunch of people who just want to go home. Wherever they turn, there’s more horror. The enemy does everything it can to stop them, as you’d expect and in what is probably the most radical move, you never once see the faces of the enemy. It’s a completely inhuman force that is being battled. That makes it all the more horrific.
What’s even more fascinating is that the movie is a 12a which means it’s almost entirely bloodless, there’s little in the way of flying limbs and injuries and yet, the movie is still utterly brutal. The horror comes – I think – from never being safe. It doesn’t matter what happens, where they go or how many times they are recovered – I hesitate to say rescued – it all goes to shit. The rug is constantly pulled out from under them.
We follow the actions of three groups of people. Running in three slightly different time frames. On land, it starts a week before the homecoming with a group of young soldiers trying to get home, sometimes by not-entirely-fair means; at sea we follow one of the small private boats requisitioned by the navy to bring the soldiers home from a day before; and in the air an hour before, a small squadron of spitfires, hell bent on stopping the Heinkels bombing the crap out of the ships. but the three fronts are intercut beautifully to create a non-linear but cohesive narrative.
And, for the most part, that’s it. Everyone does their thing. Not everyone survives. At its most ‘human’ the small boat sailing out because it must, is possibly the most affecting, but there is a moment of terrible arbitrary cruelty even there. And an heroic and compassionate response even to that.
Dunkirk – the event – has reached a peculiar status in British culture. It’s seen very much as a victory of ‘the little man’ against the Nazi war machine and this is undeniable. The problem is that that status somehow diminishes the event. You think of Dunkirk and you think of a small event with a few plucky boat owners showing Jerry what for but the scale here is colossal. Apocalyptic, even. And despite the lack of ‘flowing blood’ just seeing the occasional wrapped and bloody injury in almost too much – sorry to sound obsessed, but I genuinely think if there had been more blood, the film would have been unbearable. It was visceral enough without it.
There’s is little in the way of heroic elevation, that is, no one character is set out as ‘the lead’ or ‘the hero’. Everyone does their bit and gets on with the job of getting home. There’s are a few lump-in-the-throat moments – watch for Kenneth Brannagh’s dewy smile and I defy you not to miraculously find something in your eye – and when the returning soldiers see the newspapers and response on reaching home. Well, it’s pretty much as uplifting as you could get without Kenneth More and his chunky knit jumpers, sipping cocoa by the fire.
A Nolan movie with an almost perfect rating was something I genuinely never thought I’d see. There is one thing that lets it down, though. (There has to be something, right) and that is the soundtrack. It’s certainly not one of Hans Zimmer’s best and for the most part, it’s pretty intrusive and jarring. I get that it’s discordant nature is in keeping with what’s going on onscreen, but for me it sometimes takes you out of the movie, which isn’t really the point of a soundtrack. Shame as I usually really like Zimmer (have done since he was part of The Buggles)
Anyway, Dunkirk is truly stunning on almost every level and there’s not a duff cast member or poor performance in sight.