Dunkirk — A Retrospective

The opening shot of the printed paper, flying down from the sky (telling the British soldier that they are surrounded on Dunkirk) means this film wasn’t going to get into the ‘whys’ of things. It lives in the present moment. Christopher Nolan has talked about how he saw this as a survival story filled with suspense rather than a ‘War’ film and how his pitch to the studio was Virtual reality without the goggles. I’d be lying if I didn’t feel disappointed at times while I was watching it. Maybe my expectations were unrealistic or the fact that this is a film based on real events is a drawback. But like all of his previous films, I’ve loved them more exponentially on multiple viewings later on. This film does not disappoint on ambition though. Like Interstellar which “people” don’t love (but I do because of its ambition and optimism), this film wants to be basically more than the sum of its parts. I think it succeeds in being just that in the end. For me, the first half was riveting. I couldn’t take my eyes off from the screen. I knew I was in the hands of a storyteller I can trust. It’s giving me all this visual and audio information to remember and is asking me to make sense of them. He is not feeding information directly even about the characters, but is asking you to take a leap of faith and is hoping that you will take what you need from the film.

“Dunkirk” isn’t about the individual but rather us as a collective being transcending national boundaries (or beaches), ominous water bodies and vast skies. It doesn’t concern itself with the War much but rather focuses on the evacuation situation as a poetic representation of society, or a species struggling and fighting to live. All we need to know is that we all want to go home and don’t we all? After what life does to you outside your own protective walls? Now imagine a War in the middle of all that. We can’t because we’ve never really seen it except on screens where the bullets can’t hurt us. Nolan does use some specific perspectives and moments typical of war. Like the sound of a spitfire plane slowly approaching from a distance in the vast skies and you see it from a ground level perspective and how those proportions look and sound like. Or how hungry soldiers would bite onto anything eatable after being stuck without amenities for days. Or how a spitfire pilot would not see/hear anything except what’s in front of his tiny confined cockpit or wind shield. Dunkirk is a very experiential film but is also painfully foggy at places. You don’t really know who’s who and what’s going on at some times but isn’t that what happens in chaos?

At times I did wish that the film would ‘show’ more but then the film is asking you to come and meet it midway to make it whole. I wished some scenes would be better framed or framed from a God’s eye view which would better compose some actions scenes and it wouldn’t be so shaky or half under water. I wish the soundtrack didn’t overpower some moments like when the one plane crash lands in the sea and the Pilots seems to be stuck inside his cockpit as the water starts to rush in. Maybe some moments with just the sound effects without the score, that seems a little too on the nose, can generate greater impact.

Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, the highest ranking English officer on the scene, seems to be just as unsure of how to manage the situation as the thousands of soldiers, who’ve lined up on the dock (or thrown themselves into sea because they cant stand waiting anymore) ducking each time a German plane passes by while casually dropping a few bombs and vanishing from sight. Fionn Whitehead as Tommy is a young kid who clearly has been thrown into a fight started by older men. Harry Styles as Alex develops a genuine friendship sparked by a common path with Tommy which ends with a we ‘survived’ beer.

What Nolan does though with structure is quite intriguing and that’s what brings more value in a re-watch. Told in different timelines and physical locations (land-sea-air) during this one overarching event is something to hold in your brain for some time to come. What I was expecting perhaps was more of a culmination into a singular event which didn’t come as such instead there was an end to the different tales. Some of the people on the land and the sea survive while Tom Hardy’s pilot has to surrender on the beach in spite of an aerial victory. The shot of the plane set on fire is a nice metaphor for annihilation.

War is chaotic. That’s the point maybe.