Dunkirk may be Christopher Nolan’s best film. And I don’t say that lightly, as I love The Prestige, Inception, and two thirds of The Dark Knight Trilogy, each a film that could easily hold the same position. Perhaps it’s a question of timing – a familiar motif that runs through Nolan’s filmography. I wasn’t particularly excited about Dunkirk until the first batch of stellar reviews came in. “game-changing” they said, “one of the best war films ever made” they said. It got my arse in the seat. Still, Nolan had come though arguably his roughest time as a filmmaker.
I say rough in a subjective sense, because I doubt he gives two shits, but his previous two films, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, were easily his most divisive. Nether film is inherently bad; Interstellar is really quite good, but The Dark Knight Rises gets worse every time I watch it. Perhaps I had Nolan fatigue. After all, he wasn’t doing anything majorly different than what he had always done. All I knew was that I was not a fan of most of his output this decade.
This changed drastically with Dunkirk. I had always admired Nolan as a director, I think he’s one of the best in the business, a view shared by pretty much everyone, but I always thought his screenwriting was propped up by either his brother Jonathan Nolan or regular collaborator David S Goyer. Both Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises showcased Nolan’s penchant for mythic stories grounded in big emotional scenes. This works for some fans, but I just start laughing any time Mr McConaughey starts crying. Maybe I’m dead inside, but I prefer it when the Joker wins.
These films also suffered from the bloated nature of the stories Nolan was trying to tell. It makes sense; one is another fight for the soul of a city, and the other is to assure the survival of the human race, but it leaves a lot of balls in the air.
In essence, this is why I love Dunkirk so much. Nolan, for once the sole screenwriter, has whittled his story down to the basic essentials. It reminds me of the equally brilliant action film The Raid, another story that is boiled down to here is the main character, here is what he’s got to lose, here are the obstacles he must pass to achieve his goal. This is what Dunkirk does so well.
Christopher Nolan loves to manipulate time, especially when he can break sequences into three points of view. In Dunkirk it’s the land, the air, and the sea, with each group of characters given their mission or obstacle. Whether its rescuing soldiers on the beach, taking out enemy planes in the air, or not dying on land, it’s all simple and effective, and there are three points of view: the soldiers that are trapped, the people trying to save them, the unseen enemy trying to kill them.
In many ways Dunkirk is closer to a survival horror than an standard Oscar-baiting war movie. There is no great victory at the end the Americans never turn up to save the day) and, by the end, the characters feel like just surviving wasn’t enough. It’s a film that lives and dies on its tension, helped by Hans Zimmer’s ratcheting score that ticks the seconds down before almost certain death. It’s a triumph of visual storytelling, with every threat filtered through character rather than spectacle. It’s true that Dunkirk isn’t bursting at the seams with character work, but Nolan gives us just enough to be horrified when they are in danger.
So why do think Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s best film? Because, after ten films that have seen him rise to the kind of respect that true innovators get in the film industry, Nolan doesn’t defer to his now signature style. He tries to better himself. While I don’t want Dunkirk to win Best Picture (it won’t anyway, but even so, Lady Bird is my pick), Nolan does deserve an Oscar for directing.
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By Kevin Boyle
(header image courtesy of piervue.ca)