By Shawn Kim || Contributing Writer
I had just finished watching Dunkirk with two of my friends, Sam and Alex, and we were talking about the movie as we walked out of the movie theatre. Dunkirk, a film directed by Christopher Nolan depicts the historical battle of Dunkirk during World War II, where allied soldiers were surrounded and attacked by German troops, thus being forced to evacuate.
“I didn’t like that movie… It was too loud and chaotic”, Sam had said, which had started the discussion about the movie, subsequently allowing Alex to start explaining why he also hadn’t enjoyed the movie. I remained silent as I was still lost in my thoughts and disappointment. Having loved The Prestige, Inception, Interstellar, and the trilogy of the Dark Knight movies, I was excited to see what Nolan would explore next. Though I was initially surprised to find out that Christopher Nolan was directing a war movie as his next film, I knew that Nolan wasn’t contained to one genre and was interested to see how Nolan would deliver to his audience.
But the movie was incredibly hectic.
The cinematography was stellar, the scenes were intense, but the movie was chaotic… too chaotic, and I feared that Nolan had lost control of his medium. But as I spent more time thinking about the movie, I came to realize this: Dunkirk is less about painting war to be a glorifying and patriotic endeavor; rather, it exposes the reality of war as one that is gruesome, chaotic, and traumatic, and Nolan achieves this through several methods.
One such method is Dunkirk’s lack of dialogue. Contrary to his past films where dialogue was used to explain a concept (i.e. Inception) or successfully advance a narrative (i.e the Prestige), Dunkirk does not have much dialogue. Yet Dunkirk is still incredibly loud, but purposefully so. The action scenes involving the fighter jets, torpedos, bombings, and guns constantly barrage the viewer’s ears. This juxtaposition between the raucous environment and silent characters conveys a poignant message: soldiers in war don’t have time to react, let alone talk; the chaos of their environment drowns out their voices enforcing passivity upon them. Thus, because they have been stripped of their ability to react, a common human ability, they lose aspects of their humanity.
Another method is Dunkirk’s three-plot structure. The movie is divided into three storylines, the first following three young soldiers at the heart of the battle, the second following a civilian father, his son, and his son’s friend on their private boat going out to Dunkirk to help evacuate the soldiers, and the third following a British pilot in a fighter jet. With the storyline of the civilian father and his son, the audience is placed into a more relatable perspective. Thus creating a contrast between the storylines; from the beginning, the three of them have just set out on their voyage to Dunkirk to rescue the soldiers- he pace of their actions is slow, and the son and his friend spend most of their time on their voyage admiring the calm of the sea and the behemoth battleships. At the same time in the other storyline, soldiers their age are being swept up in the intensity of the battle, rapidly moving on even after seeing their comrades die, and being in constant terror of death by bombing. There is one scene where the soldiers move to an Ally ship, and finally seem to get rest while talking and eating, only to have a torpedo sink the ship leaving all the soldiers to swim desperately for the sake of their lives. The contrast conveys the same message that the lack of dialogue does: the inability to react in war. However, as the civilians in their boat reach the battle scenes, they too become prone to the emotionally debilitating aspects of war. In one scene, the son’s friend falls down the stairs as a result of a physical altercation, and ends up dying. Even so, the ship continues in its passage towards Dunkirk, and the attitude to keep moving (the “so it goes” attitude) is adopted by the civilians as well.
But Dunkirk doesn’t only display the loss of humanity through war.
Near the end, the fear of the soldiers reaches its peak in knowing that they will be mercilessly massacred by the continuous bombings of the German jets. But just as they start to lose hope, a sea full of civilian boats appears to rescue the stranded soldiers. The soldiers are moved to cheers as they see their fellow countrymen coming to save them, and afterwards they are all escorted to safety.
Through Dunkirk, Nolan depicts the reality of war- he offers an unfiltered perspective that displays the loss of humanity. However, Nolan conveys that amidst this loss of humanity, the actions of others out of compassion and love display the good in humanity to restore it.
First- Year Shawn Kim is a contributing writer. His email is email@example.com.