Dunkirk (Nolan, 2017)

I like Christopher Nolan’s films, though strangely I wouldn’t call him a favourite of mine. His visions are grand and operatic, and he finds ways to marry them to intimate settings and emotions, but I’ve never had the urge to watch his works more than once. Dunkirk may be the film that changes that. This is a gargantuan effort that’s both meticulously crafted and imbued with immense power and circumstance. Seen in IMAX 70mm, it’s even more enthralling: the crisp blues of the rolling waves and the icy skies; the bleakness of the foamy beach, the flickering projector adding a ghostly languor as the British troops mill around, awaiting certain death; the flecks on the print bringing the aura of long-lost war footage finally seeing the light of day. And that’s not even broaching the sheer scope captured by the IMAX cameras, the treacherous vistas expanding at full tilt in all elements, allowing us to grasp the magnitude of the calamity and its unspoken horrors. Nolan throws you face-first into the action in a way that war films of its ilk have never done before, and it’s probably the first time my stomach repeatedly clenched without any blood or gore in sight. The fact that I was living with these poor boys (because they were boys) and facing their traumas alongside them was enough.

Top-notch. That’s the word that checks off every box on the laundry list of elements. The sound effects are blistering and—at times—deafening, but amazingly integrated into the film’s landscape. Hans Zimmer’s score, accentuated by the motif of a ticking watch, is on the right side of bombastic, digging into you at the right moments without aggressively raising your hackles. Hoyte van Hoytema’s photography is stunning. And the acting ensemble is ridiculously good, especially considering the lead had no other film credits to his name. But Fionn Whitehead is a fantastic anchor, subtle yet compelling in his movements and reactions. Also great are Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Aneurin Barnard, Jack Lowden, Tom Glynn-Carney, Kenneth Branagh… even Harry Styles. A smörgåsbord of talent that any director in their right mind would salivate over. No notable actresses, unfortunately, which is sad…

… But maybe not really? I figure if actresses were needed, they’d have to play grieving spouses and girlfriends, probably. Roles that require you to stare out of windows and clutch old letters to your chest. Thankfully, Dunkirk refuses to dally with the sentimentalism of Hollywoodized war epics. Perhaps its greatest strength is its desire to lay out the shit as plainly as possible, forcing us to feel not based on tearjerker flashbacks to idyllic homesteads, but on the cruel, incomprehensible reality of living like every second may be your last. That is why, when Branagh’s Commander Bolton joyously sees “home” through his binoculars, all we are privy to see is a weathered old man gazing into an unseen distance, almost oblivious to the fact that an enemy bomber could roar up to him in seconds and turn him into dust. “Home” exists somewhere, but for an hour and forty-six minutes, Dunkirkmakes it clear that, for millions and millions of young men, home was hell on earth. And all they could do was make sure they didn’t stop breathing.