Surviving is not pleasant
The harrows of war are taught in history classes as ancient stories, far removed from us and are glorified in entertainment media as fun, witty action sequences. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk does neither of these things. Rather than showing the naive excitement for battle that so often accompanies Hollywood action films, Nolan opens on a young man, sprinting for his life as his comrades are shot dead in the streets. Even the shortest moments of relief are cut short by danger and death’s ticking clock (which is a character all its own thanks to Hans Zimmer’s frightening score). The film’s three narrative arcs, each on their own timelines, force the audience to understand the stresses and pains of all those affected in the field of battle.
Dunkirk, rather than telling a story of war, immerses the audience in it primarily through its visual and auditory languages. Nolan himself intended to shoot this project without a script, and this fact becomes incredibly clear as the film progresses. One of the protagonists of the film, Farrier (Tom Hardy), a pilot with the British Air Force, occupies nearly one third of the film’s runtime, but he has fewer speaking lines than all but the smallest of side characters. Of the main characters stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, one of them speaks only once in the entire film.
Instead of deep conversation or exposition, we are guided through the casualties of war by the sounds of whirring propellers from German planes and gunfire cutting through silence, hitting a bystander in the head. Throughout its 106 minutes, Dunkirk hopes to make you astutely aware of the fact that no one is safe in war. The film makes this message unmistakably clear when the only main character that does not make it to the end, is a young boy (Barry Keoghan) who had never fought a day in his life, slowly drifting across the Strait of Dover in a civilian ship.
While Dunkirk thrives in its technical skill, its cast was the weak point of the rescue. The cast overall seems to have been selected more for their looks than their acting abilities. While several characters, most especially Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), were exceptionally performed, many of the men were carried by the commanding sound design and disruptive cinematography of the film. This is not to say that the performances were poor, but it was apparent that the stars were not the stars of this project.
Ultimately, the film succeeds because it dwells on survival, not killing or death or rescue but survival. The grit of surviving at any cost creates a sense of desperation and urgency that concepts like honor and bravery, which are typically the focus of war films, do not have. Men will kill someone they don’t know to save themselves. To see home again. From the opening shot to the credit roll, Dunkirk maintains a powerful sense of anxiety and dread because at any moment a stray bullet could coast by and a character would be gone. A bomber could hit an escape boat escorting hundreds of soldiers, and in that moment nothing would matter except hoping someone gets out alive. There is no hope in war, there is only desperation. Even after the fact, Dunkirk makes it abundantly clear that surviving is not pleasant.