I don’t think I ever understood the importance of cinematic sound before watching Dunkirk.
Within seconds of the World War II epic’s start, Christopher Nolan cocoons you in a terrifying world of ricocheting bullets and exploding dirt coming from all angles. Silence is but a pocket of reprieve before you are rattled by another stray bullet or, worse, the unnerving whir of an airplane raining firebombs from above. Dunkirk‘s recreation of the evacuation of Allied troops after France falls to Germany is a fully immersive experience, and Nolan deploys every skill in his revered repertoire to enthrall his audience.
Dunkirk splits the rescue across three primary modes of warfare: land, sea, and air. On the ground, British soldiers, including Tommy (Fionne Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles), bravely fight frequent assaults on their evacuation attempts, surviving gunfire, bombings, even an underwater torpedo. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) is a civilian who takes his son and friend out on a boat to stage their own rescue mission. In the skies above the English Channel are three British Spitfire pilots, blasting through German air forces. The film weaves between the narratives, building a 360-degree perspective.
It’s an ambitious undertaking, but Christopher Nolan is an ambitious filmmaker. At the molecular level, Dunkirk is a cinematic marvel and a technical achievement unparalleled this year. Nolan’s northern beachfront is a high-powered pressure cooker, conveying the pure mania of wartime by ratcheting the tension up to dizzying heights. The camera offers little respite from the chaos, either suffocating with intense proximity to the haggard soldiers, or overwhelming with stunning wide shots that reveal the expansive, destructive scope of military action. Sound is the other potent weapon in Nolan’s arsenal. Hans Zimmer’s sweeping, dynamic score is used to excellent effect, but it’s the balancing of the diegetic noises that is vital to the experience. Nolan is gunning for full-on sensory overload, and he is relentless in his pursuit. The film can be exhausting, sometimes lyrical, but it is always electrifying.
Dunkirk’s meticulous attention to the physical conditions of war leaves little room for more emotional considerations. The film is noticeably light on dialogue, and the characters, while likable, are just slightly above archetype. The closest we get to human drama is a compelling yet underdeveloped look at shell shock and PTSD during an on-the-sea rescue that turns tragic. It’s remarkable that the film works so well without a stronger character narrative, a testament to Nolan’s careful construction and excellent direction. Still, it’s a shame that some of the emotional beats don’t feel quite as earned as they should. Nolan only skims the surface of the soldiers’ complicated feelings about cowardice, guilt and anonymity, and I wish he would’ve made a bit more space to explore them more. He is more than deft enough to balance the additional weight.
The leanness of the plot and screenplay means that Dunkirk’s ensemble cast does little more than brave the elements. The ostensible lead Fionne Whitehead does good work as Tommy, but he isn’t given much to do. Neither is Kenneth Branagh as a commander manning the pier during the evacuation, although he conveys a steely grace in his few scenes. The acting surprise from Harry Styles: in a sea of soldiers, he stands out for all of the right reasons. He has a charismatic presence, and he plays his character’s frustration and disillusionment well considering what isn’t on the page. If there was one role worth expanding, it would certainly be his.
Narrative quibbles aside, Dunkirk is one of the best war films in recent memory, a searing masterwork. It’s a triumph of filmmaking in every conceivable technical metric, and is easily of Christopher Nolan’s best works to date. The Academy will love the sheer amount of effort put into this film, and likely reward it with several technical nominations and wins (Sound Mixing and Editing should be a lock). Momentum isn’t on Dunkirk‘s side in the Best Picture and Best Director races, where smaller releases like Three Billboards and Lady Bird have captured the conversation, but this big budget masterpiece shouldn’t be discounted at all.