Dunkirk came out in 2017 is Christopher Nolan’s last movie. It is difficult to write about Nolan, who has now become an untouchable maestro with lots of fans ready to defend every work he has done, even the least worthy. Many of the film channels that I follow on Youtube, for example, even praise Nolan’s worst movie, the rather forgettable 2002 Insomnia which is barely saved by the presence of the charismatic Al Pacino. The only film on which everyone apparently agrees is The dark knight rises (2012), which is in fact as full of plot holes as the previous The Dark Knight (2008), but with far less interesting characters with respect to Heath Ledger’s Joker. Obviously, Nolan’s fame is anything but undeserved: Memento (2000) and The prestige (2006) are two masterpieces! And Batman begins (2005) is one of the most solid cinecomics of the last fifteen years! And Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014)… well, maybe this is not the moment to bring up those two!
Let’s go back to Dunkirk. The film deals with one of the most important episodes of the World War II. In 1940, the British Expeditionary Force sent to help France repel the the Nazi invasion was forced to retreat and found itself in Dunkirk waiting to be saved. For reasons that historians have yet to clarify completely, the Nazi tanks stopped and gave a window of about ten days to the British to organize the retreat across the Channel. We are talking about 300,000 soldiers of his Majesty plus 100,000 French ones. This doesn’t mean that the German army left them unarmed: in those days the Luftwaffe never ceased to attack from the sky (opposed by the Spitfires of the RAF) and the German infantry was kept at bay by the French resistance! But without the tanks, the British unexpectedly got a few days to organize the crossing. Long story short, with the help of all the boats that the British Navy managed to find, including yachts and fishing boats, evacuated almost all the British and French soldiers trapped in Dunkirk, despite suffering heavy losses (the codename of the operation was Dynamo). This film tells us this story, a story that is well known in Great Britain and it’s basically a feature of the British DNA, so much so that the expression spirit of Dunkirk exists, describing the determination in overcoming great difficulties by a group of people (to be more precise, “stoicism and determination in a difficult or dangerous situation, especially as shown by a group of people”). Churchill turned a military defeat into a moral victory, and it seems that this key episode determined Britain’s willingness to continue the war against Hitler’s Germany.
Why did I feel the need for this historical background? Because it’s important to understand what Nolan wanted to do with his Dunkirk. Nolan does not show us British heroes who do not give up in front of the unstoppable army of bad Nazis. he does not write tearful dialogues in which the protagonists say how much they want to survive and how many dear ones are waiting for them at home. In other words, Nolan does not make an English version of Saving private Ryan, where Spielberg, apart from the first twenty minutes of massacre, creates US soldiers who are practically invincible superheroes fighting for a just cause against evil.
Nolan shows us thousands of frightened soldiers on a beach, and we follow a couple of them doing everything they can to try to save themselves, including not very honorable actions. He shows us the RAF Spitfires focusing on Tom Hardy’s squadron (again he wears a mask for the whole movie, like in The dark knight rises… Nolan must really like Hardy’s eyebrows!). And he shows us one of the boats (without forgetting the Navy destroyers, without which the evacuation would have been impossible) leaving the Southern English shore to reach Dunkirk to save the defeated soldiers. In particular, we see a very good Mark Rylance (whose character is inspired by Charles Lightoller, look for his story because it’s extremely interesting: he was on the Titanic, he went to Dunkirk, and he even fought in World War I!).
Nolan makes a solid war movie, built on three narrative planes (the beach, the sea, and the sky) and three temporal ones (one week, one day, and one hour) that are intertwined thanks to the editing which keeps the rhythm always at full blast. I’m so happy that Nolan returned to play with time effectively (I said “effectively”: Inception is a mess) as he did at the beginning of his career in Memento! And Hans Zimmer underlines all that with his best score so far, based on the Shepard tone (three lines of sound separated by two octaves that give the illusion of a constantly growing sound, see a simple explanation here) and on the ticking of a clock to create tension. As if the images and the explosions on screen didn’t already convey enough of that! The overall effect is amazing. For an hour and forty minutes I was stuck to the chair watching those tremendous events unfolding in front of me, deafened by music, explosions, screams, shots… and it is superfluous to say that the cinematography is astounding, that Nolan shot spectacular scenes in the air, at sea and on land, and that Kenneth Branagh and Cillian Murphy did a great job!
Watch Dunkirk. There is no plot to follow, there are no heavy dialogues, there are only spectacular images, an incredible sound and a lot of material to make you think for a long time about what you have seen. The film conveys the message of the spirit of Dunkirk, but it also says loud and clear that war is disgusting and that it is stupid to waste lives and destroy the world that we have so laboriously built over centuries of development and progress. In this regard, I would like to leave you with this touching interview of a man one really was in Dunkirk and whose family took to see the film. His words are incredible… Ciao!