This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Tim Burnham’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
It's a special thing to get a Christopher Nolan film in theatres. The man loves film with every fiber of his being and puts that love into every nanosecond of his craft. And he wants to share that love with his audience and impart something. For me, it's always worked. Nolan was the first director's name I learned on my own and and the first time I sought out a filmmakers other work. Learning about Nolan was the first time I had any real appreciation for what it is a director does and what makes a director's films alike and different.
In the nine or so years since then, it is staggering to see how he has clarified his vision and intent and how he has evolved and grown as a storyteller. I don't really have role models in my day to day life, that was always an odd abstraction with which I never connected. But since I learned about Christopher Nolan, his dedication, his purity of purpose, his work ethic, his eternal disinterest in what people think of him, and his dogged pursuit of the ultimate way to tell a story, I found someone I wish to emulate and someone whom I truly respect.
I think I covered most of the broader points of this film in my initial review so after this second viewing I'd like to instead briefly touch upon some details and nuances I picked up on.
In the criss-crossing storylines and the way POV informs the storytelling, I of course noticed a lot more connections this time knowing how the story ends. The sinking civilian vessel that Farrier flies past halfway through becomes the centerpiece for the land climax. And of course when Dawson sees Farrier earlier. And a few other moments. I feel this is one of Nolan's most rewatchable films in that aspect, on the level of Memento and The Prestige in that every time there will be some new connection between the stories or some new arc to suss out.
But what's interesting about this is how it completely dismantles the notion of a conventional three act structure. I've talked before about my desire to see more filmmakers experiment outside the typical constraints of storytelling and that those who judge films and screenplays on their adherence to these archaic rules are holding film back.
So Nolan's film completely eschews this concept. Instead, there are three concurrent stories taking place over different times, that are cut so closely it's almost impossible to determine a relatable story arc. Which is refreshing. The middle of Farrier's story, which we see in the middle of the movie, shows off the end of Tommy's story, which happens in the last half hour. There's no familiar tension or build. Everything Nolan draws tension or suspense from is done through the editing, scoring, and framing.
And if you were paying attention (which we never really are in this man's films, at least the first time), you'd know exactly what was going to happen, how inevitable it all was.
It's reminiscent of the Transported Man in The Prestige. Nolan probably tells us how the trick is done like 20 times before the reveal but the way he told the story convinced us we didn't actually know, because that's how a magic trick works. Here, Nolan shows us the horrors these characters will face, but we are so caught up in the present horrors that we miss the warnings, because that's how war goes.
There's another interesting point to this POV play around Nolan does as a writer that I appreciated. The air story is anchored by Farrier and Collins. But once Collins decides to land in the water, we never see his POV again until he is discovered by Dawson, because he has been absorbed into the sea story.
And in the climax where we cut between air, land, and sea, we see the same thing. The tension of Tommy's survival is played by transferring the land characters one by one over to the sea story. And the sea story is a little bit behind the land story. So it's all a matter of waiting for it to click into place all the way.
The other aspect of this film I want to briefly touch on is it's notion of morality and heroism. As I talked about before, this is a film in which the tag line Survival is Victory is literally the theme. Being a hero isn't about shooting Nazis and running into battle, it's about getting through and doing your job. We see this out to the test by Harry Styles' character Alex and Cillian Murphy's Shivering Soldier. Both are men who make mistakes and do not do the heroic thing, but they do the best they can in the moment, and that's what makes their stories matter. Alex acts cowardly for his own survival, at the expense of his fellow soldiers, and in the end he is most afraid that he will return home to derision and hatred by his countrymen. But Alex is a symbol. He is a man who got home. And that's what makes his survival heroic.
The Shivering Soldier's blind panic results in the death of an innocent boy (this whole storyline wrecked me every time we came back to it). And it's up to Dawson and his son to just keep the Soldier safe, rescue some more men, and get home. It doesn't matter. Dawson understands, even in his grief that the Soldier has seen unimaginable horrors. He isn't aware of his actions. His son's decision to shield the Soldier from what he did was one of the most touching moments of heroism in the whole film. Because he and Dawson had to choose to forgo their pain and the weakness of this Soldier, because there are bigger things to worry about.
Actually, a similar moment comes right at the beginning when Farrier and Collins lose their third man and have no time to mourn him, and just have to record his position and continue on. He remains all but faceless, I think we MAY get one shot of him, but he's just another fallen man who gave his life so they could keep going. And they knew it was their duty not to mourn him. Just as Farrier knew it was his duty to turn around and ignore his draining fuel. Which results in his capture at the end (in which no one knew what he did or who he and Collins had saved) one of the other more tragic and poignant moments in the film.
I'll say what I said before. Nolan said he wanted to make a movie about regular people being heroes, and he actually committed. He didn't make a propaganda action vehicle for Mark Wahlberg to star in. He didn't show off British flags in every shot to somber music. He didn't have slow motion action shots of soldiers being violently eviscerated as they mow down faceless demon soldiers.
He showed us flawed men, mostly nameless (and if they have a name we only know it from the credits), not always doing the big, exciting hero thing, oftentimes just enduring, and showed us why they were the real heroes. He didn't promote himself or the stars or the action. There is zero ego to this. There are other amazing ones, but they are all movies where the movie and the people who made it come first. But this is 100% about the event at Dunkirk. About the idea of Dunkirk Spirit and what that means. Every other element comes second. The only flourish is in telling the story the way he does, which is done to immerse us in this world with these men, to put us as close to the stress level of these soldiers as he can do that we can understand. In doing so I think he crafted perhaps the most honest film about war I have ever seen.