“Understated” is generally not a word used to describe a Christopher Nolan film. Nor is generally a word used to describe an IMAX experience engulfing one’s entire visual field. And yet, it’s the word I keep coming back to for Dunkirk. Maybe it’s the silent French soldier. Maybe it’s Tom Hardy’s eye twitch just before he circles his Spitfire back around to confront a German bomber. Maybe it’s the stark, expansive visuals captured by Van Hoytema in two different large film formats. Nolan’s latest film is an exercise in restraint/constraint. Tom Hardy is constrained by the small space of his Spitfire cockpit and his mask and goggles. The windshield of his cockpit also has noticeably more reflection on it that the other pilot, further obscuring his face and making an emotional connection to him that much more difficult. Frustrating as that might be for audiences, it is exactly the point. Hardy’s pilot is the most heroic single character in the film, and yet we don’t get to know him at all. We follow a group of soldiers on the beach, but don’t hear any backstory. Dialogue is short, utilitarian. There are moments of rest, but these moments sit in the ambience of the score, of the sound design, and not in the exposition of to whom or what the soldiers want to get. Home. That’s all. Many live, many die.Nolan’s film isn’t about heroes, it’s about survival. War films tend to create two types of characters: heroes and villains. Nolan’s dichotomy is much more simple, probably more truthful. His war creates only survivors and casualties.
The film is beautiful and immersive. It’s a piece of cinematic art that needs to be experienced in a cinema. It’s a stunning defense of the IMAX format, of film as a capture medium. The action is slow, but relentless. Zimmer’s score keeps time, and Nolan uses a number of familiar tricks (expanded and collapsed timelines, disorienting set pieces) with restraint. Dunkirk doesn’t feel like a Nolan film, it feels like *this* film.I think the thing I like most about this film is that I finally like a Christopher Nolan film.