Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles
On Sunday, Roger Federer won his eighth Wimbledon title. But it was a shot six months ago in January at Melbourne that sounded the alarm.
He was losing the Australian Open Final to his great nemesis Rafael Nadal – a man who for Federer fans had become a faceless tormentor, a menacing soldier of his subconscious, a workmanlike rival magician, raining down all kinds of familiar defeat on their hero.
Federer was down in the fifth set, before clawing back on serve and just about hanging in there. He still looked like a man stranded on a beach with nowhere to go. Nadal has surrounded him. But Nadal had, for the moment, inexplicably stopped advancing, instead waiting for Federer to retaliate and perhaps make the mistake.
Then came the rally.
At 4-3 and deuce on Nadal's serve – he always seemed to be serving – the two exchanged 26 shots from the heavens. This rally wasn't a three-act film; it remained breathtaking right from Federer's wrong-footed forehand return and his desperate early defending to Nadal's physics-defying forehand lunge-retrieve and his final backhand heave that forced Federer's last-gasp flat-footed winner down the line.
This rally broke all the rules. It had a soundtrack of its own. They had time, but time didn't have them. There were gasps everywhere. Every shot felt like a tense assault on a viewer's heart and nerves. There was not a moment of calm. Someone was escaping, but it wasn't clear who or how. The narrative was reversed many times over. It was bloody, yet there was no blood spilled. It was noisy and unrelenting, artistic and chaotic – a precarious balance of survival and instinct. Victory, with every shot, felt like a lesser degree of defeat.
The commentators punctuated its climax with a throaty war cheer, as if they were saluting a sputtering Allied Air Force plane that had appeared out of nowhere to shoot down the last German bomber.
Dunkirk essentially reverses the soul of senseless battle by identifying its glorious lack of order. Its structure is strange but engaging, in the sense that it rarely lets us warm up to any of the scrambling protagonists
It was harrowing for those watching, and numbing for those involved. For those forty-five seconds, it didn't matter who the opponent was. It didn't matter who we were, because we were taking turns becoming them.
Christopher Nolan's tenth feature film, Dunkirk, is a full-blown 107-minute cinematic embodiment of this rally. Imagine this exchange point after point, for three full sets. With zero respite. With perhaps only the sound of their grunts and the ticking of the clock serving as a transition between these replays. And imagine being that tennis ball.
It's the sort of experience pivoting on the terminal anticipation of loss, until there's no choice but to win. It, in every way, defies the primal building-block essence of cinema. The suspense is individualistic, and rarely the sum of its parts. Yet, the sheer disparate nature of the faces chosen – the three stories, the three films within a film – depicts the totality and tonality of war like never before.
This is not to say Dunkirk is flawless, or the finest of Nolan's filmography. But it is unique. It is both virtual and real. It is discomforting, distant, and won't sink in immediately. Over time, depending on what follows, its status could assume a language that changes our way of consuming, and digesting, live-action story retelling.
This is that kind of movie – where the fantasy of Mad Max: Fury Road constantly flirts with and trades places with the devastating real-world practicality of Thin Red Line, United 93 and Titanic. The co-existence of styles is absurd. It is significant as much for its form as for its anti-place in World War 2 history.
It sends us to war. It sends us to the beaches, to the skies and to the water – often, simultaneously, against all rules. And then we are left to experience how even war – humankind's most repulsive manifestation of pride and ego and glory – can perhaps bring out the best in us. How, at times, tragedy is the superset of success. And how these tiny spiritual victories, too, are in fact only lesser degrees of defeat.
Dunkirk essentially reverses the soul of senseless battle by identifying its glorious lack of order. Its structure is strange but engaging, in the sense that it rarely lets us warm up to any of the scrambling protagonists. Much like the troops, who barely have a chance to establish connections before succumbing to the each-man-for-himself jungle mentality.
The score is designed to remind us that there is often no middle ground between disaster and deliverance. It serves as the blood we're never shown, and the enemies we never see
Each of Dunkirk's 70mm frames kisses the lines of the court, driving us closer to emotional wreckage. One of its young, traumatized participants quizzically remarks towards the end that, "all we did was survive". Not very different from Federer gingerly clenching his fist and returning back to his position. Wondering where the winning is.
The crowd, meanwhile, is in raptures. Pin-drop silence has turned into sprawled cries of worship and anguish. Nolan is a master at amplifying this reactionary gap between the characters in play and our perception of what they've accomplished (or, in their world, "experienced").
Time and again, none of his protagonists are truly aware of what they really stand for until the final few minutes. The difference being: their epiphany is as pronounced as ours, despite our obsessive awareness of their journey. While this is designable in fictitious conceptual dramas (Inception, Interstellar, The Prestige), it is as much a testament to Nolan's understanding of abstract sentiment as it is to his stubbornness of traditional payoff-storytelling that he manages the same in Dunkirk. Just about.
We know about Dunkirk, about the Allied Forces' retreat to Northern France's beaches and their perilous escape by water, about Britain's "night is darkest before the dawn" week, and about the sheer conflict of losing that defined the barometer of triumph (a pullout of troops: heroes who think they're "cowards"). And yet, within these written pages of history, we're left begging for closure by the end. For everything to magically result in relief. For words in a near-silent and semi-apocalyptic universe.
These climactic crosscutting montages are the filmmaker's trademarks; everything is revealed, or realized, or redeemed here, with the broad canvas reducing itself into a personal cluster of convergence. Everything comes together – or such is the illusion – in a gentle explosion of lyrical reflection, voiceovers and finality. Churchill's "We shall fight on the beeches" speech could have belonged nowhere else, just like Dylan Thomas' Interstellar-infused villanelle, "Do not go gentle into that good night". This is where the awareness of the audience and that of their heroes invariably aligns – heightened, not insignificantly, by longtime collaborator Hans Zimmer's conscience-pounding score.
The score is something that is in equal parts fascinating and confusing. On one hand, this music of Dunkirk serves as the transitional script beats that tide over a choppy, non-linear narrative. But it never ceases, even when the noise of war overhead is deafening. And even when the silence is audible, specifically on the English civilian's (an understated Mark Rylance) sailing boat.
As moviegoers, we're conditioned to equate realism with a lack of external, cinematic sound. Most memorable war epics realize the gravity of their complexly choreographed heat-of-battle sequences by cutting out the score completely. The starkness of death and fear and gunfire sounds compelling enough, removing the need for filmmakers to tell us how to feel in this lonely, crowded environment. When the music stops, our senses digest a scene as a piece of self-explanatory action. The choice to keep Zimmer's score persistent is therefore, at least conventionally, at odds with this genre of cinema. It ranges from overbearing (reference: the slow-burning intercuts between three timelines – Murphy Cooper's room, her brother in the burning cornfields and the Ice Planet – in Interstellar) to nerve wracking, especially in the cockpit with Tom Hardy's (masked, again) heroic pilot character.
It is perhaps a measure of Christopher Nolan's growing reputation as this generation's most accessible thinker that his first war movie will go down as his most audacious experiment of filmmaking
Its presence makes our minds automatically recognize the "movie-ness" of true events, the heady fantasy undercurrents of perhaps the most systematic and miraculous evacuation in human history. The score is designed to remind us that there is often no middle ground between disaster and deliverance. It serves as the blood we're never shown, and the enemies we never see. It serves as urgent compensation to narratively vitalize the vagaries and gore of war, as opposed to being shell-shocked by its unforgiving imagery and moods. It is awkward, yet necessary.
It is perhaps a measure of Christopher Nolan's growing reputation as this generation's most accessible thinker that his first war movie will go down as his most audacious experiment of filmmaking. He has tackled memories, magic, superheroes, dreams, space and time. And yet, Dunkirk is his "different" and, maybe, most intimate story. It is life's revenge on our idea of cinema. Which is ironic, given that all the clinical precision and personality indifference that his work is often criticized for, finally finds fruition – and immense psychological relevance – in a film about the mass failure of precision and personality.
We walk out not with an irrational feeling of hope, or the blinding high of redemption. We aren't supposed to. The Miracle of Dunkirk is, by nature, not the definitive page of history; it was simply a fortuitous air pocket, in 1940. It happened. We felt it in our bones. But not much changed. The people observing it did. Because seconds after that heart stopping rally in Melbourne, Nadal served out an ace. Just like that, it was deuce again. The night felt young.