“All we did was survive.”
Very rarely do you hear people cheering and clapping for a film once the credits roll. After all, the director and cast aren’t there with you. How would they know that you gave the movie a standing ovation? But once the lights came up Thursday night after the premiere of “Dunkirk” there was plenty of cheering and applause to be heard in Tinseltown.
I have been agonizing over the correct way to begin my review of “Dunkirk.” With all of the hype and critical acclaim it can easy to lose my own voice and my own personal narrative when delivering my perspective. But sitting here in-front of my laptop after seeing the film on opening night, all I can say is that the film is truly an experience you must see to believe. No review can do it justice – whether it’s from Rolling Stone or from some film nerd in small-town Ohio. This is a monumental cinematic achievement.
It has often been said that a great film is like a beautiful song. Complex, full of rises and falls, and genuine moments of clarity – no matter how brief or fleeting. Nolan’s “Dunkirk” once again partnering with pal Hans Zimmer to score the picture, does all of that and more. This film is truly a work of art, one that must be appreciated to be understood. But first you have to understand that this is not a traditional movie with a straightforward 3-Act structure. Think “Memento”, but not as hipster and set in WWII.
This is not a movie for everyone. First and foremost, the dialogue is sparse. But excessive dialogue is not needed. It’s as if the silent head nods and emotionally packed eyes of each and every solider say everything you need to know: We just want to get home. The scenes jump back and forth at will, and the multiple plot points can make the narrative a bit hard to follow at times. But this confusion is lifted about halfway through the film when you realize that everyone is playing the same game, and it is one of survival. The score and quick action help push the film forward from start to finish, keeping you on the edge of your seat until the final frame.
Right from the opening scene we find ourselves on the ground with tens of thousands of British troops waiting to be evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk. Unfortunately for them their one chance at escaping the hell of war makes them sitting ducks for passing German bombers. As the planes get closer not only does the theater shake you to your soul, but the genuine sense of the unknown is cast on every single actor’s face. Who’s going to live and die? Where are the bombs going to drop?
Once the bombs are dropped the audience is gifted a few seconds of stillness before being rocked out of their seats by a wave of deafeningly loud explosions just meters from the camera. Once the chaos is over and the sand settles on the beach, the surviving men stand up and get back in line to be evacuated – just another wartime spectacle to them. But even then the survivors are tormented with the violence that surrounds them. Why am I still alive? Why didn’t one of the bombs take me?
These questions will haunt you for the rest of the film. Through tense air fights high above the ocean led brilliantly by Tom Hardy, to torturous moments of uncertainty from the ground, Nolan tells you the story of how these men – most of them nameless in the film – survived when their world was crumbling right before their eyes. Watching the movie transports you to the shores of Dunkirk during this time of the war. There are no barriers, there is no holding back. Nolan is unapologetic in his efforts to deliver the most realistic tale of survival in recent memory. Whereas Leonardo DiCaprio overcame all obstacles and survived in “The Revenant,” all of humanity finds a strength within themselves they never knew existed, allowing them to keep fighting for just one more breath on this earth in “Dunkirk.”
This is a film about humanity and those final splinters of hope every man and woman has within their souls even when all seems lost. This is a film about never giving up, which is perfectly embodied by Hardy’s final moments in the film. Without fuel to fly back to England, he sets his plane down on the beaches of Dunkirk, alone and anticipating the German troops just on the horizon. He knows this – the audience knows this. Hardy sets his downed fighter plane on fire – a humbling moment to watch on screen. He realizes that an enemy capture and unknown future would soon become his fate, but going down without a fight would not become his destiny.
The cinematography is breathtaking, especially because it was shot on 70mm film. The score is so perfectly done and so unnerving at times that it feels as if you are right there alongside these soldiers, just waiting for your time to come because you genuinely feel that there is no way out. Through it all Christopher Nolan has delivered the most authentic story of survival and heroism since “Saving Private Ryan.” Nolan’s “Dunkirk” feels like a true film – a piece of art that taps into the human soul and catalog of human emotions like it’s never been done before. Nolan has delivered a timeless tale of resistance and never giving up – even with the face of Death himself staring down at you from the seat of a German bomber.
Through the lens of an IMAX camera it can be difficult to understand, let alone appreciate and grasp the story behind the title of the film. But Nolan has produced a bona fide work of true craftsmanship and passion; A story that is as relevant to those who lived through the war as much as it is for people all over the world in 2017 facing political oppression and social injustice. The film’s final words, “Never surrender!”, echo throughout the hearts and minds of every political and social movement today. I’m not sure if Nolan intended it to be this way, but as the old saying goes, ‘You can’t stop fighting if the war isn’t over’ – or something like that.
For their efforts the men and women portrayed in this film were among the most noble of souls during the war. The narrative told is one of passion, courage, hope, and humanity. Nolan does them justice. Because they never surrendered.
Originally published 7/27/17