Charlie Kenney | Wednesday, August 30, 2017
All of Christopher Nolan’s movies exist in his fictional worlds, places where stealing memories is possible, cloning yourself is achievable, remembering nothing but what the tattoos on your body say is plausible and fifth dimensional travel is totally feasible. All of his movies are his creations and no one else’s — he decides what occurs, who dies, who lives and even how the laws of physics will play out before the end credits roll. It’s this unique vision that allows him to gross 200 million at the box office and still garner Oscar nominations. But, in his latest film — an adaptation of the famed evacuation of Dunkirk at the beginning of World War II — he can’t play God. Dunkirk was a historical event that took place in our own mortal realm.
Nolan’s decision to pursue historical fiction is ambitious. In theory, he’s tied to the laws of physics, the timeline of history and the intrinsic nature of man. Nolan, however, isn’t one to let reality stunt his creative vision.
Nolan’s non-linear plot structure flexed his unorthodoxy in characteristic fashion. His movies are famous for non-traditional time formats. He loves to confuse his audience with his intricate, highly intentional jumbling. His movies “Memento,” “Inception” and “The Prestige” utilize the non-linear plot structure to stunning effect. While “Dunkirk” cannot take the same temporal liberties as his previous works of pure fiction, Nolan does what he can. The result may be his most innovative storyline yet.
He organized the film into three intersecting plots — one following the British troops on the beach, one following a boat-bound family on their way to rescue troops and one following an RAF fighter pilot above the English Channel. On the surface, these three interwoven plots seem rather elementary — a simple way for Nolan to tell three sides of the story — but, as you progress further into the screen time of the movie, their true colors shine through. The story on the beach takes place over one week, the story at sea takes place over one day and the story in the air takes place over one hour. Nolan’s plot structure, however, projects the stories simultaneously. Only at the end do we realize how time was structured. With his temporal antics, Nolan turns a historical battle with a forgone conclusion (Spoiler Alert: the Brits retreat successfully) into a fresh tale, ripe with surprises.
Nolan also improvised on the fact that Dunkirk did not have a grand hero. Yes, some generals made important decisions and many soldiers demonstrated valor, but no single person stood out. Nolan’s prior movies typically followed one supernatural or special protagonist. Whether it was Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in the “Dark Knight” or Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) in “Inception,” he always had someone to crux around. To fill Dunkirk’s hero gap, Nolan invented a slew of notables, probably to pay homage to the widespread collaboration that made the evacuation possible.
Lastly, Nolan improvised to make his movie as immersive as possible. War movies have a certain obligation to draw their audiences in — viewers want to step on the beaches at D-Day, trudge through the Afghan highlands and wait on the shores of Dunkirk. Immersive filmmaking pays these times of war and tragedy their due respect. Nolan’s past movies — “Interstellar” and the Batman Trilogy in particular — excelled at the task of immersion — but none of these films had “Dunkirk’s” prerequisite expectations and logistical challenges. The entire movie takes place in water, near water and in the air, making it an incredibly difficult shoot, especially with a bulky IMAX camera. Nolan, producer Emma Thomas and director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema attacked the challenge head-on. They built original contraptions to put the camera in the water, hang it off boats and trail flying planes all in the name of immersion. When combined with Hans Zimmer’s stopwatch-oriented score, these shots leave the audience emotionally and physically leveled.
Would I say that “Dunkirk” is Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus? In certain aspects, yes, I would. In others, I am not so sure. But, wherever the film stands in Nolan’s catalogue, I can cite it as the acclaimed director’s successful jump from the comfort and convention of a self-made sci-fi universe into the dark waters of reality. It’s a film that will be shown for years to come both for its brilliant portrayal of history and for its technical prowess.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, Mark Rhylance
Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5