On Dunkirk

When you’ve sat through enough creative-writing seminars, read enough how-to-write books, and listened to enough lectures, it becomes very clear that we can all agree on one thing: the “realism” of stories isn’t the same thing as real life – and it wasn’t meant to be.

When we compliment a writer for their “realistic” dialogue, or when we praise a director for “capturing real life” we don’t mean real real life. That would a nightmare. No one wants to watch a real conversation or a genuine slice of life up on a movie screen for two hours. We want something that crosses that invisible boundary of just real enough. Just real enough to let us believe in what is going on in front of our eyes.

Which brings me to the genius of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. One of the films of 2017 (this is a subjective view because there is no objective list of the best films of the year…and it feels pointless to even point this out…but some people – especially on the internet – seem to feel that an expression of a subjective opinion of taste needs to be confronted and shot down), one of the appeals of Dunkirkis its realism.

I am not, of course, in a position to judge how exactly like the actual events of the rescue of men from the beaches of Dunkirk the movie actually is; what I mean by “realism” in this case is: enough care and attention has been put into designing the movie that, when I look at it on the iMax screen, I believe that this is a close enough representation of the beaches of Dunkirk for me to enter into the movie. And this is why, incidentally, despite what the internet might say, it does matter that there were no black or brown faces onscreen. For better or worse, we are now a people educated via the screen. Responsible filmmakers have a duty to make sure, if they’re trying to show reality, however fictionalized, to make it match the actual events as much as possible. And the military personnel at Dunkirk did not all have pale-white skin.

Adhering to real-reality as much as possible helps viewers know which country really got the code-breaking machine from the Germans, and which country’s diplomats really rescued the hostages (add the movie names yourself – it’s a quiz!). Otherwise, citizens of certain countries get the dangerous idea that world events revolve around them. But anyhoo.

Cinematic pleasures – you know, things that make a movie worth watching – don’t have to be complicated. I’m a visuals guy; I can enjoy movies because of the spectacle, and Dunkirk is certainly spectacular with its aerial dog fights and boats full of terrified soldiers, and so on. But what stood out for me when watching Dunkirk was the sound. I remember vividly the hard sounds of bullets against the hull of a ship. How they sounded, echoing and ricocheting around the inside. The noise made by a crowd of men all moving in the same direction, as they squeezed together onboard a ship. The sound of the fighter planes as they flew over miles and miles of water – the sound and the picture combining to give me, as the viewer, at least some sense of what it feels like to fly toward danger as the fuel gauge drops lower and lower. 

There are big names in Dunkirk – as there tend to be in Nolan movies. There’s Sir Ken, there’s Peggy Carter’s sidekick, there’s The Scarecrow, and there’s the mighty Tom Hardy. None of them took centre stage, though; each did his bit and then the camera moved on. Dunkirkis about a mass of humanity, about what people can do when they’re all pulling in the same direction; and how, with a little luck and the wind blowing in the right direction, the little guy can stand up to the bully long enough for the rest of the world to catch up. It brings a red-white-and-blue tear to my eye…

Nolan works on three different timelines for the movie and that might be frustrating if you’re just looking for a straightforward Sunday-afternoon war movie. A complicated timeline potentially offers a number of different opportunities in a movie – not least for the filmmaker to show off. Done right – and for a purpose – it adds a layer of complexity to the simple beginning-middle-end of the story. It adds a pleasure to subsequent viewings, too, as you kind of know where it’s going and you can start to see how to get there. But if it’s just so your audience wants to see how the trick is done, then it might be showmanship, but it’s of a shallow kind.

Dunkirkgets it right, for me. But, as we now all say, your mileage might vary.

2017 was a standout year for movies for me, with two titles entering my ever-changing canon of Best Movies Ever. I think the Blade Runner sequel made me a little happier, but this one was a close second. And the good thing about movies is you don’t really have to choose. You can like them both at the same time. Whatever the internet might tell you.

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