DUNKIRK – Where local people became the real heroes

A hardcore, staunch fan of Christopher Nolan, Samin Sakib reviews his latest release Dunkirk.


Dunkirk, a film about men, it is about finding the meaning of life surrounded by the meaninglessness of war. It is an existential masterpiece set across three parallel plots destined to collide, which in turn are set on three planes of existence — earth, air, and water. To us, these elements symbolise life, but in Dunkirk, they might as well be harbingers of death, having suspended our characters in their purgatory as they await judgement.

The moments spent in anticipation immediately before a new Christopher Nolan movie are often just as nerve-wracking as those spent watching the film. An irresistible energy buzzes through your body as you collapse into your grimy seat — a hypnotic mix of nervousness, fear, paranoia, and careful optimism. This is a pilgrimage, after all. To some, Nolan is a god, and his temple’s walls, dark and foreboding, seem to push in as the lights go down. Your senses, usually dulled by a mundane existence, are heightened. You’ve never experienced anything like it.

The fantastically directed film is told from three perspectives non-chronologically. It superbly tackles the non-linear narrative and the story doesn’t pull you away from the intensity of the events happening on the screen. Hans Zimmer most likely gives you one of the most fitting scores for a war film ever. Sometimes there is only one note playing as background score followed sounds of heartbeat and a ticking clock while other times a massive orchestra is interpreting what is going on onscreen. The movie brilliantly projects the feeling of each and every soldier on the beach to the audience. Confusion, turmoil and fear. I felt anxious most of the run time. There is no lead in this film and I can’t really say anyone stuck out as giving a brilliant performance because it wasn’t needed.

The cinematography here is ostentatiously a masterpiece. Director Christopher Nolan has, without a doubt, reached the pinnacle of on-screen spectacle here. The feats of practical effects in this film are breathtaking. The casting of nearly 6,000 extras, authentic WWII vehicles, and shooting on location in Dunkirk, France contribute to a great sense of scale here. There is an ongoing trend of action films in the recent years of relying on CGI, and thankfully Nolan bucks that trend.

Similar to War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), much of the film plays out without dialogue, leaning on just the score and sound design in scenes. The sound design is also extremely well crafted, which, paired with Nolan’s great work behind the camera, truly transports you to the battle of Dunkirk. The wailing of planes passing above, the drone of gunfire, and the roar of explosions all contribute to the complete immersion into the world these characters are trapped in. This results in some of the immersive wartime action scenes seen since, ‘Saving Private Ryan’.

This film has and will continue to be compared with World War II classic ‘Saving Private Ryan’. Both films are beautifully filmed WWII period with casts that deliver great performances. The similarities end there. Whereas ‘Saving Private Ryan’ was engrossing as a narrative due to its characters with depth and arcs, Dunkirk instead leans on its subject matter and spectacle.

While the subject matter of Dunkirk is fascinating, as a film it lacks emotional firepower due to the absence of a strongly written protagonist. This is strangely a bit untypical for a direction of Nolan’s calibre, especially when you recall the complex character work in his most acclaimed films: The Dark Knight (2017), Memento (2000), and The Prestige (2006). Instead of focusing on a single character or single group of characters, the focus is spread across three protagonists in completely different situations. Showing the Dunkirk Evacuation through the three different perspectives of those on the beach, the sea, and the air is only an interesting proposition on paper. The narrative, due to this writing choice, is spread far too thin, with few characters getting enough screen time to develop even the mildest emotional connection.

Then again, because of these periods of silence, and because of Nolan’s refusal to rely on words (or, for that matter, a traditional structure) to tell his story, Hans Zimmer’s terrific score becomes crucial, and slowly, emerges as a character in its own right. Like the film, it is relentlessly intense, stretched to a breaking point as it conjures tension seemingly from nothing. And such is Nolan’s power at commanding the attention of his audience, that you find yourself overlooking basic flaws. There isn’t a single character in this film that is properly fleshed out, and it fails miserably at the Bechdel Test. But never have these glaring missteps mattered less. The crazy fans of Nolan can certainly remember what Bruce Wayne said at the end of The Dark Knight Rises? Moments before flying into certain death, he looked at Commissioner Gordon, and growled, ‘A hero can be anyone’. And this is the sentiment that Nolan has carried into Dunkirk. These characters aren’t meant to have elaborate backstories or complicated motivations. They’re meant to represent an ideal. They’re meant to embody our bravery and our empathy and our kindness. A hero can be anyone, from a middle-aged sailor who just wants to teach his son to do the right thing, to a decorated commander who refuses to leave until every last man who serves under him — or even if he doesn’t — has been saved.

While the characters in this film aren’t written to be even remotely compelling, the great work from this cast is not to be overlooked. Harry Styles, known for being a member of English boy band, One Direction, is surprisingly excellent here in his acting debut. Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy all gave standout performances despite the limited screen time they are given.

Undoubtedly a cinematic achievement, Dunkirk is one of the greatest war movies ever made. It’s certainly a tight, unwaveringly propulsive film of Christopher Nolan’s career. It should get the share of the royalty it deserves. It deserves to be seen big and loud.


Samin Sakib is a student of Bangladesh University of Professionals.


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