An army of faces I barely remember. An agonising wait for rescue. A whirlwind of micro-narratives that bleed into each other until it paints a picture of war. War movies are most memorable when they are immersive. When the spectator is dropped in the middle of the action and the chaos envelopes the senses. This is what Nolan achieves in this film and more.
The opening sequence feels like being dropped with a parachute and left disoriented in the company of unknown soldiers. We get no introduction of each character. There isn't a protagonist in a traditional sense. In a way, we are the protagonist. The camera captures in the first-person. What we see is immediate and within reach. We follow the soldiers and we get to know them by simply watching them be.
Because of this, there is no time wasted for exposition or, consequently, for clunky explanatory dialogue. This is probably because Christopher Nolan's usual co-writer, his brother Jonathan Nolan, had nothing to do with the script (good riddance) and instead the script focuses on building tension and atmosphere through sounds and images. It's a classic example of show and don't tell.
What this generates is a series of intensely beautiful, intensely moving and intensely brutal moments. The emotional atmosphere flows like an unpredictable body of water, letting the drama unfold naturally and without the distracting presence of a screenwriter with their bothersome structures and perfectly packaged parcels of dialogue. That is not to say that this movie is pure chaos, there's still a structure but it is a more natural one.
This lack of artifice extends to the special effects. Nolan relies on practical effects with real objects that hold weight and real locations that imbue a sense of history. Everything just looks real. When the ships topple over, you feel its heaviness groan into your bones. When you watch the actors swim in an ocean of spilled oil, you feel it sticking to your skin and smell its stench. It is truly a big screen experience. I would encourage all who can to see this in 70mm. I cannot imagine the time-soaked cinematography would lend itself well to digital projection.
Finally, another reason to see this in the theatre is for the magnificent score by Nolan's usual collaborator, Hans Zimmer. The score seamlessly melds with the images and action that it becomes difficult to discern between which is music and which are the sounds of war. Zimmer composes an unrelenting symphony of war and destruction. I can't recall a scene that was not filled with sound - it's always there.
Dunkirk is Nolan's most direct expression of his skill as an image-maker. It isn't bogged down by anything unnecessary like plot twists and mind-bending tricks. It isn't dampened by eye-rolling monologues about how love transcends space and time. It communicates its grand themes by simple gestures: a soldier stripping off his uniform carrying his sorrows out to sea or a general looking into his binoculars and seeing home coming towards him.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros