In May 1940, between 300,000 and 400,000 British troops were trapped between German forces and the ocean. As they attempted to evacuate the beaches of Dunkirk they fell victim to German Luftwaffe, the German equivalent of the American Air Force. German planes focused on bombing the evacuating ships and gunning down men on the beach. British battlecruisers were nearby the beach, however, they were unable to land on the shallow beach to carry the men to safety. The smaller ships used to shuttle men back and forth between the beach and the battlecruisers were dwindling and this led to the deployment of civilian vessels from England. This historic endeavor was codenamed Operation Dynamo.
Christopher Nolan’s new film, Dunkirk, follows the struggle of a few groups of men. The primary group is comprised of a band of men trying to get off the beach by any means necessary, portrayed by Fionn Whitehad, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles. The second group is a civilian boat on the way to Dunkirk to rescue troops. The boat’s crew is made up of Mr. Dawson, played by Mark Rylance, his son, Tom Glynn-Carney and his son’s friend, Barry Keoghan. The third group we follow is a pair of spitfire pilots, Collins, played by Jack Lowden, and Farrier, played by Tom Hardy. The intertwined storylines conceived by Nolan provides an intense and immersive look at the historic evacuation of Dunkirk that was a pivotal moment of World War II.
I have been looking forward to this movie for over a year, at least. I tried not to get my expectations too high before watching this, but that was hard to do. The intense historical dramas always draw me in and this year was full of them.
Nolan’s masterful filmmaking style brings the story of Dunkirk alive. Right out of the gate we are presented with a peaceful look at the abandoned streets of Dunkirk as some young soldiers wander the streets. This is quickly interrupted with an ambush of gunfire, forcing the soldiers to run for their life. This was a great way to get the audience settled in and comfortable and then, in an instant, engaged quickly into what is about to be a fast paced film.
The excellent pacing throughout the film is paired well with the immersive camera angles. The camera is right in the thick of the action in a way that makes the audience not just viewers, but participants. This effect is also amplified by the realism created by Nolan through the setting and production design as well as through the story telling. While there are certainly main characters and storylines we are following there is no main story arc. Instead Nolan has created a “community” storyline including everyone’s experience involved. In other words, the main storyline is not necessarily driven by any individual character, but instead by the circumstances of the situation.
This leads into one of the aspects of the film I enjoyed the most. The editing and non-linear story structure keep this film suspenseful and engaging in a way that linear story telling would not have accomplished. Cutting all of the storylines together adds to the chaos of the situation and keeps the action ever present.
This feeling of ever present action and intensity is enhanced immensely by Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack. In an interview with Business Insider, Christopher Nolan talked about how the score was made and its importance to the film.
“Very early on I sent Hans a recording that I made of a watch that I own, with a particularly insistent ticking, and we started to build the track out of that sound. And then working from that sound, we built the music as we built the picture cut,”1
Nolan also references the use of a Shepard tone as the focal point behind the films structure. A Shepard tone creates an auditory illusion of perpetual ascending or descending tones.2 Again, in the interview with Business Insider, Nolan explains how the concept behind a Shepard tone played a role in the creation of Dunkirk.
“There’s an audio illusion, if you will, in music called a ‘Shepard tone’ and with my composer David Julyan on ‘The Prestige’ we explored that, and based a lot of the score around that,” Nolan said. “It’s an illusion where there’s a continuing ascension of tone. It’s a corkscrew effect. It’s always going up and up and up but it never goes outside of its range. And I wrote the Dunkirk script according to that principle. I interwove the three timelines in such a way that there’s a continual feeling of intensity. Increasing intensity. So I wanted to build the music on similar mathematical principals. So there’s a fusion of music and sound effects and picture that we’ve never been able to achieve before.”1
This is such a creative way to unify the film. The consistent foundation and structure of this film are what make it stand out.
Something else that amplifies the tension is the fact that we never see any German soldiers, outside of enemy aircraft. At least, I do not remember seeing any German soldiers. Their presence is clear and looming throughout the film, but the mystery behind their position and when they will approach is one of many facets adding to the building tension in this film. We see characters receive gunfire in the streets, but that gunfire comes from the ‘collective’ German force not any individual.
I am sure there is a great deal I am missing in this movie. I will definitely need to watch this one again.
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Written by: Christopher Nolan
Edited by: Lee Smith
Music By: Hans Zimmer
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Barry Keoghan
Runtime: 1h 46m
Genre: Action, Drama, History
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures