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Let’s be honest: the time I spend in anticipation before a new Christopher Nolan movie is often just as nerve-wracking as that spent watching the film. I love Nolan, like a lot. As I sit down on the cinema chair, I get a combination of nervousness, fear, paranoia, and optimism.
I have experienced this sensation before four Christopher Nolan films, and each of those experiences were, and remain to this day, some of the most special I’ve had inside a movie theatre.
But help is on its way. Farrier, played my the amazing Tom Hardy, protects them from above, acting like he did in The Dark Knight Rises, through a mask, and only with his eyes. And his eyes are all he needs to convey the (scarily suicidal) determination to save his countrymen, as he kills off one Luftwaffe fighter after another – even as his wingmen perish, and fuel gauge begs him to stop.
Below him, on the water, a civilian Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) has commandeered a boat, one of the many deployed by the Navy in an effort to aid the evacuation process. With his teenage son, and his son’s eager friend in tow, with no plan, he sails into war.
And with the precision of a watchmaker – time is a repeated motif in the film – Nolan, a master working at the peak of his powers, puts the pieces of this jigsaw together with some of his most effortless editing since the masterpiece that is Inception. And like Inception, as layer after layer of Dunkirk’s nesting doll structure is uncovered, and when the three stories finally converge after almost two hours of merciless tension, the emotional release is pure ecstasy.
In order to build this tension, the experimental work of genius that it is Dunkirk spends long stretches in silence. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s IMAX camera, taking a break from soaring across the skies, brings the actors’ faces inches from its own. And these fine performers – mostly young stars (Harry Styles included) – convey wordlessly the torment raging in their characters’ minds.
Because of the periods of silence, and because of Nolan’s refusal to rely on words (or, for that matter, a traditional structure) to tell his story, Hans Zimmer’s terrific score becomes crucial, and slowly emerges as a character on its own. It is unrelentingly intense, stretched to breaking point as it conjures tension seemingly from nothing.
These characters aren’t meant to have elaborate backstories or complicated motivations. They’re meant to represent an ideal. They’re meant to embody our bravery and our empathy and our kindness.
A hero can be anyone, from a middle-aged sailor who just wants to teach his son to do the right thing, to a decorated commander who refuses to leave until every last man who serves under him has been saved.
Bottom line, Dunkirk is one of the greatest war movies ever made – it’s certainly the tightest, most unwaveringly propulsive film of Christopher Nolan’s career. But it’s also as meditative as The Thin Red Line, as brutal as Saving Private Ryan, and sometimes even as surreal as Apocalypse Now.