Dunkirk ★★★★★

At this point Christopher Nolan is really only competing with himself.  With each subsequent release of one of his films, he insists upon pushing forward the boundaries of the filmmaking experience and of storytelling.  He pushed the limitations of immersion, spectacle, and innovation at every turn.  Never is it necessary and never do his films rely on this insistence.  It's just something he pushes for that gracefully shoves his films over that extra stretch into oneness.  Because no one else in cinema is pushing in the ways that Nolan does.

Almost every one of his films tells a story in a way we haven't seen before, playing with time, perspective, and tension in interesting ways.  He told us a story backwards, he told us a story from the point of view of two different lying diaries, he told us a story within a story within a story, and he told us a story in which time reacts differently to different characters in the same reality.  And now he has taken this narrative ingenuity to the next level.

When Nolan used the term 'temporal strata' I didn't know what the hell he meant but the idea of this man once again cutting loose and breaking chains was more than enough. Seeing what he meant, I am astonished and in awe.  Three stories that take place over different time periods, land--a week, sea--a day, and air--an hour are told concurrently.  At first it's just enough that we have all these equally tense storylines to follow, but then they start overlapping despite the periods in which they occur.  Every moment cascades into the next but also backwards into a previous moment with ever deepening import as it goes on.

I have talked about Nolan's signature move before, I believe I wrote about it in my review of The Prestige.  I referred to it as the Cascading Climax.  It is the moment where we start breaking off and following seemingly unrelated characters and subplots, with increasingly intense editing and music until they all reach their climaxes one by one, and we realize how they all connect.  He did it in The Prestige with the Abracadabra execution, in The Dark Knight with the Joker's victims, in Interstellar with Murph learning about the ghost.  I am not exaggerating when I say that Christopher Nolan took that idea and made an entire film of it.  This whole thing is a cascading climax from beginning to end.  This is quite literally what this man has been building to throughout his career.  And that's just in the structure of his film.

The score needs to be mentioned alongside the structure.  Hans Zimmer concentrates the work he has done with Nolan into something godawful.  Every score he does for Nolan is something never before seen or completely reimagined.  And this is a story purely about time.  Time has always been an element of the storytelling, and it has always been an element of the score.  But here, time is the storytelling, and time is the score.  A ticking, building, violent, visceral clock.  For all Nolan's work with structure, it works as well as it does for what Zimmer lays as the undercurrent to the proceedings.  Pure anxiety injected into the veins.  I had simultaneous chills while I felt my blood was on fire.  That's not an exaggeration either.  That's a literal physiological reaction I had to this movie in certain parts, from the pure, distilled tension.

Meanwhile he tells a story about war.  Not about action heroes mounting a last ditch attack, or about some superspies hunting Nazis, or anything we have seen in this realm before.  He effectively looks at wartime through the lens of humans.  The soldiers were just people, terrified, with no idea what to do, desperately trying to survive while also constantly aware that the world was relying on them and that they were not saving it.

This film takes an honest look at heroism.  The tag line isn't being clever.  This film is about the idea that in war, survival is victory.  And that is a journey not only for us as an audience to make, but the characters of this film to also make, and when they do, it is beautiful.  The sacrifices and loss and small victories made by characters here are so heart stopping in their power because this film puts us right next to them in their fight for survival.  We understand how a tiny moment is so crucial, how a decision to turn around is the most heroic thing a man with low fuel can do, how someone can lose people and push through.  It gives one a greater appreciation for everyday life as we see what exactly it takes to be a good person and to make a difference.

And to talk about the story requires talking about the cast and the role character plays in the film.  Not only does Nolan unconventionally utilize structure in this film, he does so with his cast.  The choreography of the big scenes, with hundreds of extras moving and emoting as one feels unearthly, and gives the scenes an element of otherness, it often feels we are standing with one foot in our world and the other in the afterlife as these men move with, against, or past the camera.  Then there's the decision to craft a true ensemble.  No leads, not even archetypal pieces of a cast.  A true, nameless ensemble.  Every war movie up until now defines its characters by the actor playing them and the actor PLAYING them.  War movies are usually played as historically accurate action movies, lots of gunfire, running, screaming, and cool lines.  Not here.  Nolan tells a story about the ordinariness of heroism and it wouldn't be appropriate to do so with an elevated cast.  As a result we have new actors and veteran supporters all pulling equal duty as men.  Some of them have names that we actually here but no one is introduced because there is no time for introductions in a fight for survival.  

And working in that tangent, I do have to say that Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh really do take that idea to another level.  They each get moments that are so blisteringly painful, just to see as human experiencing war, that wouldn't work nearly as well in another movie.  In another movie, these moments would be MOMENTS that stop the momentum so we can FEEL them.  Here they are just things that happen to people.  There's no time to feel them, which keeps them jumping around in the back of your subconscious as everything else is still going on.  

It's the closest any director has gotten to portraying the viscerality of war.  Because he strips away all the film parts, all the overwrought story and acting and set pieces, and he dedicates himself truly to the idea of telling a story of ordinary people.  When every other filmmaker makes that claim, it is Nolan who means it and makes it a cornerstone of his film.

This film is something else.  I am sure I am forgetting plenty that I would love to dig into, but right now I am still so tense and jumpy from the experience.  My first film in 70MM IMAX and I'm glad it was.  Nolan's right, this is how you see a movie.

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