‘Dunkirk’: Tic-Toc, Tic-Toc
Editor’s note: The following article originally appeared in the August 10 print edition of Caribbean Business.
By Catalina Acebal-Acevedo
“You can practically see it from here.”
“Dunkirk” begins quietly. A few scattered papers. The light <I>pat-pat-pat</I> of shoes walking down a grey, barren city street. Soldiers moving slowly forward, one idly looking for any remnant of a cigarette to smoke. Then, BANG. A shot closely followed by a flurry of other shots in quick succession. Dead soldiers topple to the ground while others dash for cover as the movie swings into action at full force, its rapid-fire pace waning on only a few rare occasions during the entirety of its two-hour runtime.
The film’s frantic, dire tone is understandable considering its subject matter. The setting is Dunkirk, France, in May 1940, during WWII. The German army has the Allied forces cornered in this seaside city and are closing in fast. Every day that the 400,000 predominantly British and French soldiers remain on the beach is another day they might all be obliterated by the German planes sporadically dropping bombs overhead. Director Christopher Nolan artfully depicts Operation Dynamo, or the evacuation of Dunkirk, by dividing the narrative between three locations: the beach, the air and the sea. Initially, the storylines appear scattered as they occur on three separate timelines (typical for a director like Nolan who likes to play with the idea of time in his movies) but after a while everything makes more sense.
One of the movie’s most astounding qualities is the sharpness of its sound editing and design (Richard King) as well as its mesmerizing musical score (Hans Zimmer). When the action begins, the music appears almost unbearably loud due to an audio effect known as Shepherd’s Tone, which tricks the audience into believing there is a constantly rising volume when there is not. This illusion provides an added sense of realism to the film’s soundscape as it attempts to parallel the screaming planes, deafening explosions and other cacophonic sounds of war. Among these sounds, there persists the subtle presence of a clock ticking in the background in almost every scene. This clock ticks on throughout the film, giving it the feel of a thriller and acting like a time bomb counting down the seconds to possible total destruction.
Despite the aforementioned violence expected in a film about WWII, “Dunkirk” is anything but your typical war film. Nolan even went so far as to say that it is “not a war film at all.” Instead, it is more of a psychological study of human’s desire to survive under what appears to be the insurmountable threat of an invisible enemy. It is about the hope that drives this survival and the small victories that can be found in catastrophic failures. It is about home; not just as a place, but as an idea encompassed by the community of people who believe in it. It is important to note that the film presents all these themes, remarkably, without the audience ever once seeing a German soldier or a profusion of gore.
With the help of Hoyte van Hoytema’s stunning cinematography, Nolan opts for a more impressionistic style of filmmaking. The film’s PG-13 rating is understandable considering that Nolan turns away from overusing blood that most everyone knows is a part of war and, instead, focuses more on the emotional elements of fear, desperation and survival. The locations where they filmed are real, the images are shot in actual film rather than digital, the Spitfire planes are authentic, but “Dunkirk” is not a documentary (and all the better for it); it is an incredible audiovisual symphony. With the shots of the soldier covering his ears as bombs go off around him, the boy extending a hand to the pilot in the water, and the Spitfire silently gliding over the beach at the end, Hoytema’s beautiful imagery provides a stark juxtaposing element to the horrors of war.
My one critique of this movie is that it focuses more on the event itself than the characters. Many of the characters are nameless and even the ones with names are never fully developed. A possible reason for this could be that the film wants to put us in the perspective of the soldiers themselves. Just as the soldiers never really know each other’s names or background stories, then neither do we. Chit-chat may make for good entertainment but the film’s tense, fear-filled minimalistic dialogue feels more realistic.
“Dunkirk” is what I consider a white-knuckle movie; one that will have you sitting at the far edge of your seat for its entire duration. It is the kind of film that you would never expect to come out in the summer season when superhero movies, remakes and sequels reign supreme. The based-on-a-true-story drama certainly feels strangely out of place opening on the same weekend as “The Emoji Movie” rather than after Labor Day (what the industry considers the starting point for “award season”), but that’s exactly how Nolan wanted it. “Dunkirk” stands out as an intelligent, beautifully crafted and well-acted ensemble film that will leave you thinking about it long after the credits roll.