No, it neither is the greatest magic trick nor is it Michael Caine’s advice that eschews violence for the day’s liberation. Nolan advances into the beach of sterile hope with honesty, and deviates from his imposition of cheap convention that would normally shatter the religious architecture into cumbersome fragments of blatant exposition. In this meditative survival epic, Nolan bisects the horizon as the security of shelter which every soul yearns for (“You can practically see it from here”) and as an uncharted jungle where the lush is the waters and the Germans are the wilder peril referred to as “enemies”. However, you never see the enemies. Betwixt the rapid homecoming of ordnance that recoils on every vessel to home, a survival instinct invades the human singularity and converts kindness into cowardice and affection into self-preservation.
Yet the humanity is not lost, the fumes cloud it and the projectiles diminish its expanse but not every soldier submits to the chivalry of desertion and preservation of the battlefield’s drive. Nolan dresses the reluctance to run away as unity and breaks down the integrals of fear into two — one caters towards the massive artillery and the other thirsts to be the saviour of fellowmen. Here, he insists on the existence of hope when all else exhibits a fallible zero. The comradeship is definitive proof that danger does not drive us to betrayal but it stems from our habit of imparting several warrants to greed, to disguise it as primary survival under smokescreens of adrenaline. Hoytema leads an esoteric stare over the sands, slowly ascending into cockpit views to capture the colossal blues of air that are as breathless as the men in the midst of waters are. The bold storytelling with minimal dialogue is new ground for the director but herein, his triumph shows artistic merit — only because of how he chooses to characterize with a candid lens and decorate sporadic little marches into freedom with humanity.
Looking on the other side of the fence, there are remnants of jarring exposition and manipulative tricks hiding under a need of announcement for the characters. When you see men bathed with oil as they swim for shelter and ascend to your own boat, you do not need to announce, “Oil!” When you are hiding in a ship, conversation automatically begins. Identifying the foreigner would then take a couple of minutes by their speech or none thereof, but this particular distinction does not happen until bullets penetrate the shell and fear assumes control. This, I feel, is a third-rate way of progression of which Nolan has been often guilty. More of this tawdry mechanics show when George locks the soldier into a room full of life-saving utilities wherein, the state of the soldier’s mind could easily drive him to a bargain for the opposite way to home.
There are so many soldiers here yet we do not know any of them, even by the proverbial ending. Although the characters in the relief department are blessed with some exploration, there exists a paucity of sincere character development in general. It is surprising to see that after trisecting focus into only three districts — the relief, the airforce and the soldiers, and after further tapering focus into the essential characters, the lack of exploration, which he sacrifices for several stylistic gimmicks comes off as downright embarrassment. I am sure that I will find more faults with a second viewing but I am not done yet. Hans Zimmer, two words: one aesthetic and one loosely pedagogic. We have come far enough to understand Nolan’s fascination with Caine as well as Zimmer but losing Caine has upset him a bit so he maxes out on Zimmer. Therefore, Zimmer’s score is always there and it leaves little space for moments of silent redemption. For something as emotionally charged as Dunkirk, the ubiquitous chords keep at a tensed rehearsal and never allow for any of the several layers of emotion to settle in.
You could argue for the presence of exposition; you could argue that Nolan never wanted us to settle. The strongest of arguments will definitely fail when it comes to how he ends his films. Although abundant with grandeur and profoundly constructed, it is logically volatile. Nolan continues his habit of bypassing constraints of simple cause-to-effect phenomenon with ardent music and stimulating voice-overs, and Dunkirk is no different in that case.
A big part of me celebrates the homecoming of the dramatically rare Nolan and the remainder regrets the residues of his stunts. Time, perception and reality have always been his playmates. In a film that is as thrilling as Dunkirk, he still manages to array those elements cleverly to achieve an exciting result. Ultimately, I am happy; moreover, proud to see Nolan attempt to grasp something that fights his comfort zone. It is a brave attempt, worthy of high praise. At the end of the rescue, the soldiers insist that all they did is survive, and the old man salutes them as saviours. The emphasis on the display of humanity in times of tormenting survival echoes through his characters as human transcendence. Dunkirk is exquisite, moving and grand. It brings me to tears, not because of the scale at which Nolan operates has hit me as he intended it to; it’s because of the wider path he has chosen for himself, from where we are going to see something incredibly different. Although the bricks reek of age, the monument made is essentially new.