War produces no heroes. The battlefield is an arena for soldiers just doing their jobs and trying to get home. There’s scarcely any place for Rambo figures in the realities of war. Hollywood would have us believe that a war is carried by only a few key players.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a bleak, grim gem that personifies the ugliness of war. It doesn’t glorify the grand adventures of a single soldier rising from boot camp to victory. It doesn’t herald victory with cheers of “we can do it.” It’s a maniacally dark tale where everyone faces almost certain death.
Dunkirk angles itself as a history book, not a memoir. The event of the Dunkirk miracle takes full precedence over any single player. The film is sprinkled with non-descript roles and almost unnamed characters. Its saving grace for entropic chaos is the use of chapter headings to mark its three main perspectives—the Mole, the Sea, and the Air.
The Mole spotlights the soldiers trapped on a beach and cornered by advancing German forces. The Sea spotlights the civilian yachts requisitioned to aid in the Dunkirk evacuation. Finally, the Air spotlights the three fighter planes dogfighting and keeping German bombers at bay.
No one tries to be a hero. No one is deluded by grandiose patriotism. Everyone is motivated by his own personal reasons. Some would even go to ethically suspicious lengths to save their own lives. The most objectively good motivation we ever see in a character is just a simple sense of decency. Dunkirk isn’t people by war heroes and veterans, but by ordinary people. It’s their raw fear in the face of death that makes their plight so believable, that makes us believe that this can happen to us.
A war movie shouldn’t be propaganda masquerading as sensationalized conflict. The grim reality of war is that people can die without making a single impact in the war. Some people will not make it back home. Nolan recognizes this so well. Dunkirk is suspenseful anguish made all too real.
From its opening second, we are not safe. Booming rifle shots jar us from a sense of security that this is a fun Nolan film. The loud drones of unseen Messerschmitts rattles us to the bone. There is scarcely any dialogue. Yet, Nolan proves that silence, creeping ambiance, and the absence of a physical villain (we never see a single German face) can create a constant air of danger and foreboding.
As always, Hans Zimmer scores this Nolan film. As always, it’s a masterpiece. Zimmer’s score fantastically lends itself to the film’s nail-biting suspense. Mixed perfectly with a scene’s ambiance, Dunkirk’s score never lets up, not until a modicum of safety is even established. Even then, silence can be a treacherous mistress. Even silence can herald imminent danger.
Like a fresh bullet wound, Dunkirk is dark, gritty, and painful. It shocks not with gore but with the threat of death and anguish. This is a Nolan film as only Nolan can make it.