*** (out of 4)
Thanks to films like Saving Private Ryan, the oft-used saying that “war is hell” tends to conjure up images of huge explosions, flying bullets, and injured soldiers writhing in trenches. In Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, however, the hell of war is something both far less flashy and far more insidious: constant apprehension. The movie recounts the story of the “miraculous” Dunkirk evacuation from three perspectives: a soldier (Fionn Heyward) willing to do whatever it takes to board a ship home, a civilian (Mark Rylance) who sails to Dunkirk to pick up soldiers, and a couple of RAF fighters (Jack Lowden, Tom Hardy) chasing Nazi planes over the English Channel. In each storyline, there are indeed plenty of explosions and shoot-outs. Yet such flashes of action prove secondary to the large stretches of time said characters spend sitting, sailing, and flying in silence – quietly waiting for the attack they know is coming, but unsure of when it will happen or how to prepare. This, Nolan suggests, is the most debilitating aspect of war: a permanent, simmering sense of dread, almost like a perpetual state of unsatisfied suspense.
Many war movies play like secondary sources: they provide context on the war and their protagonists’ lives with a slight detachedness that makes you think you’re watching the cinematic adaptation of a biography. The best thing about Dunkirk, however, is that it’s very much a primary source – a loose, almost impressionistic portrayal of various individuals’ struggles to survive that prioritizes direct sensorial experience over exposition, acting, and dialogue.