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Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is not like most war films. A typical war picture such as Saving Private Ryan, American Sniper or Hacksaw Ridge will take its time introducing the characters, exploring their family lives or what awaits them after the war, as well as sometimes delving into their deeper psyches and exploring how they process the things they had to endure. Not Dunkirk.

Instead of focusing on complex character development or wartime brotherhood bonds, Nolan crafts his war epic in a different, somewhat unexpected way. He choses not to center on the characters, but on the actual event itself — trying to replicate the crisis in as realistic of a way as possible. As a result, Dunkirk is a visceral, almost documentary-like experience.

To do so, Nolan choses to take us into the experiences of three separate narrative ac- counts of survival while being trapped on Dunkirk. It’s 1940. France has fallen and the Allies have been forced to retreat to the small town of Dunkirk. They’re surrounded by the Germans on three sides, the fourth being the uncrossable English Channel—home is sitting just out of reach.

The infantry waits on the beach, praying that a ship will come evacuate them and hoping that they won’t be picked off by a German dive-bomber in the meantime. The air force is aiming to provide aid from the sky, but they find themselves constantly being cut off by the Axis army before they can reach Dunkirk. The only true hope that the stranded recruits have, seeing how most of the ships are being torpedoed as well, are the local citizens who are attempting desperate rescue attempts by sailing across the Channel in their fishing boats.

These stories—despite all taking place over three different periods of time, in true Nolan fashion—are interwoven. However, there’s no single, final confrontation involving all these characters, just as there are no true heroes. Everyone stuck on the beach is fighting for one thing and one thing only: survival. They, for the most part, don’t care if the person standing next to them lives or dies (hence the reason they all look so similar). They barely even speak to one an- other, instead communicating through nods and inaudible grunts. The reason they have been sent here no longer matters. They just want out.

Given that there’s so little dialogue in “Dunkirk,” Nolan instead uses other filmmaking tools to convey what characters may be feeling, including the use of sound and setting. The gun- shots, loud and up-close, echo in our ears. The low hum of the German planes growing closer and closer give us the same sense of dread that’s then expressed on the soldier’s faces, creating an almost claustrophobic sensation. The nods and looks of recognition characters give each other say more than words ever could.

It’s these moments that ultimately wind up defining the characters and the film itself. What some criticize as a lack of character or plot development can otherwise be seen as each individual’s response to fear. Sometimes there’s not enough time or too low of morale to sit around a campfire and talk about why one joined the army or how much one might miss their family.

When faced with life-or-death situations, people often act irrationally. And, should they make it out alive, they’re then left wondering what the point was. “All we did is survive!” says one frustrated soldier after he makes it to safety and is told “well done” on his efforts by a local citizen.

Yet, there’s still hope in “Dunkirk.” In response to the angry soldier, the man replies, “that’s enough.” People—like Mark Rylance on the boat, especially seen through his interactions with Cillian Murphy—don’t always fold at the sight of fear. They embrace it, using it to fight and to help others. And, once it’s all over, hopefully they can learn to live with it. Dunkirk may not have been exactly the kind war of film that people were expecting it to be, but it’s one that’s able to capture a whole lot despite, technically, saying very little. —Brandon Schreur

November 2017
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