Dunkirk (2017) tries to quiet war
Dunkirk (2017) is a well-written film, with threads of plot and action weaving through three separate structures, quietly merging into a nicely woven full story. I could not believe how quiet this movie was. Dunkirk was about as tense and quiet as Saving Private Ryan was with its loud, boisterous action and gore. This film was written by Christopher Nolan and you can see the art and the style in his writing, which is first class. Nothing about it is generic and cliche, which is refreshing in the war genre.
The movie centers around the Battle of Dunkirk, which is the successful evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk back to Great Britain in 1940. The movie gives us the battle from three perspectives, the mole, the sea, and the air. Each of them contains tense moments accented by the score and long periods of dialogue-free action, so this is not a character piece or a movie concerned with character development. This is a movie that delivers moments, and I particularly enjoyed the “air” portion, which concerned three British pilots. One them, played by Tom Hardy, saves the day, sacrificing the last of his fuel to pick off some Germans. Talk about heroic.
Without spoiling the rest of it, these three segments have a tremendous build, and a considerable payoff. The dynamic works without character development, and this study in “heroic moments” puts Saving Private Ryan to shame. The moments of heroism are typified by an intensity that has an amazing amount of sustainability, and Nolan cuts between perspectives at one point, so he can build all three at once. The flow is perfect, and the drama works.
Although I’ve rambled on about heroism, most of the running time is spend with a coward, whose mission is just to escape Dunkirk and the chaos everywhere around him. He tries to stow aboard a Red Cross vessel, but it sinks, so he tries to commandeer a beached cargo trawler but it gets shot up and floods. The guy has no luck whatsoever. His luck does not make you cringe and turn away like in Saving Private Ryan, but draws you into his next series of actions, as he tries to sneak his way out with the next con on his mind. Fionn Whitehead plays a clever character. In the end, he is redeemed slightly, and the movie ends with something special from him, which is appropriate. The reason for following this type of character is a good contrast to the usual war main characters, and his ending satisfies the movie’s main theme.
Overall, this is an excellent movie that deserves its awards talk. I just can’t get over how quiet this movie was, but it was so enjoyably tense and engaging that way, plus it was emotionally satisfying in the end. I was highly anticipating this movie, and it met all my expectations. Nolan could have taken the safe way out and delivered a dialogue heavy genre staple, complete with rousing score, like something John Williams would be proud of. Instead, Nolan takes a different approach, and he succeeds. Zan Zimmer is no John Williams, but that’s a complement in this case, as it works perfectly for Nolan’s vision of a quiet and powerful movie.