I think the reason why Dunkirk was for some people a controversial film
was because it was incredibly alien in its execution.
The vast majority of movies have a focus on character as events happen to that character,
while Dunkirk does the exact opposite where the focus is on the event as characters experience this.
The difference between the two sounds quite subtle,
but when actually executed,
it makes all the difference in the world.
In almost every film,
the director tries to add character moments.
They actively try to make the audience care for their characters,
while with Dunkirk, Nolan intentionally does not.
I think that right there the intended flaws
are not only the most damaging part of this movie,
but also the most redeeming parts as well.
Hacksaw Ridge was an incredible film,
and it’s great to see Mel Gibson has still got it in him to make great films,
but there is an inherent flaw in Hacksaw Ridge:
The entire film is told from the perspective of one American soldier.
The movie does a fantastic job at telling us that person’s story,
and giving insight into the mind of a conscientious objector,
but it fails in one aspect:
The approach Nolan took of intentionally insufficient characterization
allows him to provide a greater number of perspectives of the event,
whether it be from a British soldier to the commander in charge,
to an RAF pilot or a civilian on his boat.
The evacuation of Dunkirk
was a massive event with hundreds of perspectives that could have been told,
and take the traditional approach of having a single protagonist
who we follow throughout could have been a bad one,
because while it allows the audience to feel invested in that character,
it also limits the scope of the filmto that one character’s perspective.
Nolan’s approach while making the characters weaker does justice to the event
where it allows a more total understanding for the viewer of what transpired
far better than any film from one perspective ever could.
I think a good way of summarizing this film’s flair
is that this film could only be told as a film.
If you were to take Hacksaw Ridge or Saving Private Ryan and turn them into a novel,
they could have been an interesting read,
but Dunkirk, as Nolan told it,
would fail if it were to be converted into any other medium.
That is not so much a bad thing but rather a statement about the nature of this work,
because despite the fact this film is incredibly non-traditional in its approach,
Dunkirk is visual storytelling at its very best.
And in order to prove that,
we need only look at how Nolan expertly creates a constant tension
that perpetuates almost entirely throughout the movie.
This is not only created by Hans Zimmer’s fantastic score,
but also in the way Nolan constructs a scene.
In Dunkirk, Nolan displays an expert level understanding of how tension is created,
and understanding of the art of fear.
And before we take a closer look at Dunkirk’s craft,
we need to first understand the key to creating tension.
And quite simply when it comes to creating tension,
it is all to do with expectation.
Now how does Nolan use this key?
Well a great example is this clip.
[Roaring of fighter]
Using the rule,
it’s quite easy to realize why the tension in the shot is so palpable.
The bombs start faraway and as part of a pattern
come closer and closer.
The viewer after the first few seconds
realizes that the protagonist is in the way of the bombing,
and this is further reinforced as the bombs come closer.
And this culminates in the relief when the bombs stop was just one shot of hitting the character.
Now this is a good example of a moment with high tension,
but to find a more complex example,
we need only look at the evacuation scene once the characters are on board the boats.
An interesting method Nolan uses in this scene is that every single shot
is from the perspective ofwhere a soldier could be standing.
When we see the characters walk down the stairs,
the camera tracks them as if we the viewer
are standing on top of the stairs looking down on them.
When they are walking through the crowd,
the camera follows them as if we the viewer are walking behind them
as they make their way through.
Each shot from the inside the boat in this scene is taken from a place
where a soldier could to be standing.
You’ll notice this because most of the the shots are at eye height
as if we are a part of the crowd looking on at the main characters.
If there were to have been a shot from below or above such as this shot,
it would give a certain detachment from the scene.
When shots like that are used,
it can make the viewer feel like they are a spectator looking in.
But when all the shots are taken in this way
from eye height as the camera moves just like a person would,
it instant makes us subconsciously feel like we are physically there,
which only helps to add to the uneasy tension.
In this scene, Nolan simply by choosing carefully where the cameras pointed,
tells us a thought process of the protagonist.
We see him look up,
it is followed by a shot from his perspective
as the door he came through is locked shut.
He turns to the right,
we see a number of soldiers relaxing.
It would’ve been easy to have this scene be one of respite to have had no tension in it at all,
but due to this specific choice and shots,
it tells us what is going through the character’s head:
“The door has been locked shut, so I can’t get out.
“I’m trapped in a tight space with a hundred strangers.”
Simply by telling the audience the fact that character is worrying,
that worries us as the audience too.
It also serves as foreshadowing where later on his worries are validated
as the boat is torpedoed and he nearly drowns because he can’t escape.
And this idea of the uneasy fear being directly linked to expectation
is present in many examples throughout this movie,
whether it be the pilots fuel gauge that is disabled,
so we has no clue how long he can remain in the air,
or the boat scene where the Germans start using the grounded boat the characters are in
as target practice and as a result the boat starts to flood.
Another example of a threat that we know is not at the moment a problem
that will be a huge one in the immediate future,
is in the climax where the soldiers are drenched in the oil
as they desperately try to escape.
As a result of this threat that is not immediately a danger but we know it soon will be,
it leaves the viewer at the edge of their seat
as they expect that threat to become a reality at any second.
This again creates a strong palpable tension.
A number of months ago,
I made a video called Alien–The Art of Horror.
In that essay I asked what makes for a truly great moment of horror,
and my conclusion was that great horror comes from the fear of the unknown.
In Dunkirk when you look or rather don’t look at the German soldiers,
you can see this philosophy being echoed.
When it came to the German soldiers,
in only one scene are they actually referred to as the Germans.
For the rest of the film they are only referred to by:
“The enemy has something to say about it.”
“Enemy could be right there.”
“But it’s us or the enemy.”
“And the enemy tanks have stopped.”
Now the reason Noland approaches the Germans in this way is twofold.
Firstly the film is not about the Germans.
It’s about the Allies and their struggle to survive.
Spending any amount of time on the enemy
would have only distracted from the overall purpose of the film,
but primarily I think the reason why Noland did this
was to play with that idea of the fear of the unknown.
Quite often the scariest things are the things that we don’t fully understand.
And when we never see the enemy up close,
when their individual human parts do not exist,
and instead they are addressed as if they are an ambiguous collective,
they are less tangible and thusly more frightening.
I wonder if you notice
that in the only close-up shot in the whole film where we actually see German soldiers,
they are in the background, not the main subject of the shots,
and they are out of focus.
Even in the end,
we are not allowed to see the face of an individual soldier,
because the moment you see that,
the moment the enemy stops being an ambiguous unpredictable threat,
and instead just a group of humans,
in that moment, the enemy becomes tangible and thusly less frightening.
Now I expect the majority of you will disagree with me on what I’m about to say,
but many people have been praising this movie as a truly great war film.
But I want to disagree,
because while this film is great and artistically unique,
Dunkirk is not a war film.
When you look at the very best war films,
not the ones that are just action films that justto happen to take place in the middle of a war,
they always make commentary on the nature of war.
The truly great war films always address an aspect of what war is like,
and to an extent,
try to educate the viewer about its reality.
And I think a great example of the war scene that embodies this philosophy
is the scene in Saving Private Ryan where the main characters have
captured a German soldier who just killed one of their friends,
and then he begs for his life
by reciting American culture as he digs a grave.
For 60 seconds, we see a German prisoner
digging a grave, trying to plead for his life
while the American soldiers just look down at him in silence.
“I say can you see?”
“I say can you see?”
This scene is powerful.
There are thousands of action films that are just brainless action flicks
where there is no real commentary made,
but it is scene like this
scene that portray the true nature of war,
and how when it comes to deciding who is good and who is bad.
In real life, it can be extremely trying,
because sometimes both sides are equally as evil.
This scene is a great war scene
because it makes commentary on that fact.
In Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson tackles conscientious objection
and how sometimes those who refuse to kill are in fact more brave than those who do.
Sicario deals with the idea that when it comes to war,
the American government can be just as evil as the foes it fights.
Saving Private Ryan tackles a number of aspects of war
such as how war brings out the very best but also the worst in people
where someone displays selfless bravery such as Private Ryan does
when he refuses to go back home because he would rather risk likely death
than abandon his friends,
or the very worst
when the translator lets his friend die,
because he is too terrified to intervene.
No matter the director,
no matter the critical response,
in order for a war film to truly be a war film,
it needs to make some kind of commentary on the nature of war.
Now that is not a hard and fast rule but rather just my own opinion,
but what commentary does Dunkirk make on the nature of war?
Yes there are a number of smaller ideas that play a role in the background
such as Cillian Murphy’s character who has PTSD,
but really the fact the film is set in a war is secondary to the true focus of the movie,
because while it has elements of a war movie,
it is not a film about fighting,
it is not a film about war,
it is a film about survival.
Dunkirk shares more in common with The Day After Tomorrow
than it does Saving Private Ryan:
the fact we never actually see the enemy,
the fact the question is never addressed.
As to which side has the moral high ground
was entirely intentional from Noland,
because that is ultimately irrelevant
when it came to the factual event of Dunkirk.
If Noland were making a movie about the holocaust or the use of atomic weapons in Japan,
there is no doubt that the morality of those events would have been front and center,
because the morality of what those people did at those moments in the war
is an integral part of understanding those events.
But when it came to the evacuation of Dunkirk,
morality did not matter,
because in that moment,
nobody was pondering whether the British were in the right or the wrong,
but rather the only thing going through the heads of the soldiers on that beach
was the pure and total fear of an unseen enemy,
the pure and total fear of never seeing home again,
the pure and total desire to survive.
So saying Dunkirk is a survival film is not a negative connotation at all,
because when you look back at history,
at the evacuation of Dunkirk,
survival is what it was all about.
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Anyway, thanks for watching,
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