*Spoilers* for the film will be indicated by an asterisk!
The sea can burn.
The human body will sink if one wills it to.
The oddest thoughts went through my mind as I watched the film Dunkirk unfold.
My boss saw the film on Thursday and when I came for work on Friday several of us engaged in a discussion about war – whether humanity exits within it, whether it is a necessary evil, and how conflicts should be resolved if not through organized attacks were all topics that came up. We devised some “solutions” such as having leaders take the place of the men and women who fight for us or at the very least appoint a champion to fight in their stead. Dial down conflicts to individual issues not all encompassing problems. Except, conflicts do not always stem from one particular occurrence, sometimes they grow from small instances of slight and miscommunication. Sometimes conflicts burns hot and fast like a brush fire – then it can be nearly impossible to determine the cause of the destruction.
Is war insanity?
Well, if by definition insanity is repeating the same action over and over with the intention of producing a different result the answer is yes. *But, after watching the soldiers load themselves onto ship after ship, and when those destroyers were torpedoed, swimming to fishing boat after fishing boat I would deny their actions to be insane.* Narrowly focused and simple though their actions may have been they were not motivated by insanity. The characters in Nolan’s film are motivated by fear, fear of death or of injury resulting in a significantly altered state of being. They are afraid of never seeing home again. Fear makes people do things that outside of context make them appear mad. *The best example here is Cillian Murphy’s character, known as the ‘Shivering Soldier’, who to Peter, the son of Mr. Dawson, the owner of the Moonstone (pictured below), is a cowardly figure of sorts. He reacts violently to the news that they are headed towards Dunkirk instead of away from the almost certain death surrounding the beach. Out of the context of war, which Peter hasn’t fully experienced, the Shivering Soldier’s actions make him appear threatening rather than the actuality – he is a man under threat from his own mind and his own experiences.* The fact that this film does not shy away from shell shock and referencing PTSD is an encouraging sign from Hollywood.
The film was beautifully cut and shot. It was a production of few words, which called to mind the adaptation of Mad Max: Fury Road from 2015 that also featured Tom Hardy. Much like that film it knew that its strength would not lie in overcomplicated dialogue, war room scenarios, or hidden emotions. None of the characters really bottle up their emotions. Granted, many of them are numbed by their situation but those that do express thoughts and feelings do so without restraint or care for convention.
The starkness of the scenes kept the movie grounded. The neutral colours conveyed the feeling of being caught in limbo. This is not a traditional war movie in the sense of Saving Private Ryan, no heroics of epic proportions occur. Instead there are simply ordinary people who set out to do what they can for the scared men and boys trying to survive and defend their country. There was no room in this movie for gratuity only honesty. It represented the men as people, even in the chaos of war it demonstrates how *soldiers moved out of the way for their fellows on stretchers. However, it also made sure to enforce how not everyone got along even if they were on the same side. The beginning of the film shows British soldiers blocking Frenchmen from retreating via a ship because it’s a British vessel and so meant only for the British men.* These were still men who put King and country first.
The music was certainly a highlight, scored by Hans Zimmer, it accompanied moments of tension, tragedy, and tumult in a way that was both respectful yet still cinematic. I swear I can still hear the score in my head. In fact, as I left the theatre to go home I was so caught up in the emotion of the film that a sudden burst of fireworks nearby startled me quite badly. Whenever I leave movies like this one, movies that seek to move, teach, and remind their audiences, my mind floats into a different headspace. I become stuck on the topics they address. I cannot leave a movie theatre after a film like Dunkirk and talk about how good the popcorn was or where I’d like to go for dinner. I need time alone or at least time with people who also want to process what we’ve just consumed. While they set my heart beating faster than usual those fireworks gave me time to think – they made me sink into that headspace and parcel out thoughts that appear here, in this blog post.
It was poignant. It was beautiful. I want to say those things about this film, and yet, while in essence they are true there is something more to Nolan’s latest work. I’m glad it’s not an apology piece; Dunkirk happened and there’s nothing one can do to change that part of history. Instead of an apology the film is a reminder, it is the final salute for the memories of these men and their sacrifices. I can still hear the sounds of the planes echoing in my ears and that is what this film is about – remembering what came before us and reminding us of where we are now. Go see it even if you’re only going to see if Harry Styles can act (which he can) or if you want to keep up your streak of seeing all of Nolan’s work. Go see Dunkirk and let it remind you of what our world is built upon – destruction, hope, fear, and survival.