BEIRUT: It’s not often that a film has such a drastic effect on audiences, yet Christopher Nolan is no stranger to this.
When word got out that Nolan was going to write and direct a war genre film, many fans were elated, and the buildup to the film’s release has been an aggressive one especially from the marketing side of matters.
In Dunkirk, a film that covers a moment in the tragic World War II event, Nolan’s imprint is evident in the way he designs the film’s narrative structure.
Exploiting a technique that he previously used in his film Inception, Nolan manipulates time and tells the Dunkirk story in three different levels.
The first is the mole which has the duration of a week in the total duration of the film, the second the sea takes up a day, and the third is the air takes up an hour. All those levels intersect, forcing audiences to put the pieces together in order to fully understand the entirety of the feature.
Granted, a war film told in this fashion is rather new and distinctive, yet the question that remains is does this stylistic choice work in this genre?
The film overall has many aspects that are worthy of praise, but there are other aspects of the film that did not work.
Cinematographically speaking, Nolan and Hoyte Van Hoytema, the director of photography, craft a vast visual scape using 70mm film stock and IMAX cameras. The different landscapes covered in the film also differed in the way the camera functioned, giving each scape its own visual language to place the audience in the proper mindset.
Every frame a breathtaking image that tells its own tale, with emotion coming from the silence rather than the dialogue.
Yet that same powerful silence is terribly overshadowed by a film score that shames all film scores. Hans Zimmer, who clearly should retire, mixes what results in pure digital noise in order to create tension. At first, the intended tension succeeds but after a single note is held for approximately three minutes, that tension becomes an irritation.
This results in most audience members being detached from the events that are occurring onscreen.
The film’s edit also showcases tension, especially in the film’s final act where Nolan plays with his audience as he relies on his parallel editing to reveal which of the soldiers survived the disaster.
Yet with all that in mind, the film’s biggest problem is the fact that the audience has no character to truly engage with.
For a film to be crafted so well and in such a complex fashion to falter when it comes to its characters is a disappointment.
In Nolan’s defense, it could be the writer’s intention to not have an identifiable character or a character that audiences can engage with.
A country’s soldiers are for many the nameless men and women who defend the country and its citizens. The soldiers at Dunkirk were 400,000 of Great Britain’s finest, and when they needed to be saved, citizen ships were called to their aid.
True as that may be in reality, in terms of cinema this becomes the film’s Achilles heel due to the fact that suspense can only work when there are stakes, and stakes can only exist when there is a character.
This is not to say that all the performances within the film were spectacular, and most surprising are ex-One Direction member Harry Styles who captivates whenever on screen.
In a debate that has long been in existence, for many cinemas is purely the unification of sound and image for that is how it began. Yet for many others, including some of the greatest filmmakers of our time, cinema is about telling stories using the unification of sound and image.
If one uses the first statement when witnessing a film like Dunkirk, then the experience is one of satisfaction and enjoyment. On the other hand, if one witnesses Dunkirk expecting to engage and empathize with characters, and delve deep into a complex narrative with memorable themes, then one might end up disappointed.
As with discussions of the grayness of war and politics, this film will be the center of many cinematic debates as already many have fallen in love with it and many others have proclaimed their dislike for it, some even going as far as saying it was “pointless” while exiting the theater.
Yet this, at the end of the day, is the beauty of the cinematic arts and a pure reminder that art is subjective.
When it came to his vision of war, writer and director Christopher Nolan crafted this ode to the men that were forced to wait, and pray against all odds that hope would come and deliver them, much like how Dunkirk now has to wait for audiences to survive the box office.
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