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Courtesy of Warner Bros./Syncopy

August 18, 2017

Dunkirk: Sound and Storytelling

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So I’ve been trying to write this review without swearing but uhhh… holy shit did this movie floor me. If you’re one of those people who reads only the first couple lines of a review: go see Dunkirk. It’s breathtaking.

And that’s the first thing I need to harp on — Dunkirk is beautiful. There were more than a couple of takes in this movie where I couldn’t help but think director Christopher Nolan and director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema were just showing off, flexing their cinematographic muscles. Such stunning shots coupled with the film’s overbearing atmosphere of anxiety generated cognitive dissonance. French beaches became graveyards; blue skies rained fire; a skip across the English Channel became insurmountable. Nolan makes alluring postcards read “war is hell.”

Dunkirk is based on Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of 338,226 Allied troops from France after they were beaten back and surrounded by German forces in the beginning of the Second World War. The movie begins with British troops on the beaches coming to the realization that although England was just miles across the water, they would likely never reach its shores. As the Germans closed in from every side, their air force terrorized soldiers huddled on the beaches with regular bombing runs.

With such high stakes and tension, you might expect grandstanding speeches and Herculean feats typical of war movies. However, in unconventional fashion, Nolan has crafted a film in which dialogue and characters are of relatively little importance. Dunkirk is almost entirely about the spectacle of the historical event. All three of Dunkirk’s timelines weave together to build on the feeling that the scope of the event was bigger than any character’s story.

The first of these stories takes place over the course of one week on the beaches surrounding “the mole,” a deep-water pier. We see the events from a perspective of various British soldiers, one of them played by Harry Styles (who wasn’t nearly as distracting as I thought he’d be), and a commander played by Kenneth Branagh. As the movie’s tension builds, we see these characters descend into hopelessness.

Dunkirk’s second point of view is that of a British civilian, played by Mark Rylance, crossing the Channel with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his son’s friend, George (played by Barry Keoghan), in a small boat in order to try and help the doomed troops in France. This segment contains much of the film’s emotional development and speaks volumes to the inspiringly resilient spirit of the British populace during wartime. Unlike the first portion, Rylance’s journey occurs during one day.

The final story arc follows a British fighter pilot Farrier, played by Tom Hardy, and spans just one hour as he flies across The Pond to try and take some pressure off his suffering comrades.

Dunkirk: Three Spitfire fighter jets flying over the English Channel.

Courtesy of Warner Bros./Syncopy

Dunkirk: Three Spitfire fighter jets flying over the English Channel.

Despite their differences, all three stories are perfectly intertwined as Nolan cuts back and forth, synchronizing their escalations until all three conclude at once. I can’t remember ever letting out a sigh like I did at the end of this movie. If nothing else, Dunkirk is one of the most affecting films I’ve ever seen, and a large part of that is Nolan’s masterful blending of plotlines. A lesser director simply couldn’t have pulled this off. Hell, I’m not sure any other director could’ve pulled this off. After I saw Baby Driver, I said something about Edgar Wright being one of the best directors working today and, don’t get me wrong, Wright is certainly one of the most innovative, but this is different. Nolan has proved again that he’s a master of storytelling.

In a lot of ways, Dunkirk is antithetical to what we’ve come to expect from action flicks. Not only is Dunkirk a historically accurate and light on dialogue World War II film, but it’s also told from three different points of view, each of which occurs within it’s own time frame, and it has teenagers flocking to the theater! F***ing what?! Dunkirk isn’t just awesome, it’s genre redefining.

The things we can see, like the film’s aesthetic and story, come at the audience directly, while sound gets at us more sneakily. The result is the same — we’re affected by both, but our relationship with the two varies. Dunkirk is about tension, and Nolan’s use of sound in the film is what made that tension so central to the movie’s success.

If you see Dunkirk in theaters (which you absolutely should), you won’t just hear it with your ears, you’ll feel it in your bones. This movie is seriously loud. Every gunshot startled me. The screams of British Spitfire fighter planes dog-fighting overhead shook me in my seat. I found myself terrified as wounded and dying soldiers called out for help. All of this chaos on top of Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack kept me on the edge of my seat and I couldn’t help but feel that’s exactly where Nolan wanted me.

In a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, Kenneth Branagh said that after a screening with Dunkirk veterans, the men joked that the movie was louder than the actual battle. I suppose that after movies like Inception I shouldn’t be surprised that Nolan and Zimmer can make a serious racket, but Dunkirk took it to another level.

Nolan also crafts this ever-present tension, funnily enough, through silence. Sure the gunshots and planes are deafening, but Dunkirk has shockingly little dialogue. The audience have no choice but to hang on to the few spoken words. Nolan has worked stunningly expressive performances out of his actors, such that even without speech viewers have no problem relating to them. The character’s silence only serves to reinforce the crushing weight of their predicament and make the previously mentioned loud noises even louder.

I understand this movie isn’t for everyone. Those offended by loud noises and violence will find themselves in sensory overload, but even then that’s an effect Nolan was striving to create. We see characters in the film suffer from shell shock, and it’s no mistake that Dunkirk is setup to elicit a lot of those same emotions in the viewer. Those, accustomed to run-of-the-mill action movie tropes will find this movie atypical, but maybe it’s just the kick in the pants they need to start expecting more from their trips to the cinema. Sure, Dunkirk is a wartime thriller, but it’s certainly not asking anyone to turn their brain off for two hours.

In this movie, Christopher Nolan has crafted not only a fitting tribute to one of the most miraculous military operations in modern history, but also a new standard for how tension and storytelling can be incorporated into action films. This summer as a whole has been pretty great for cinema, but movies like Dunkirk remind me why I fell in love with going to the movies.

Nicholas Smith is a rising sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nks53@cornell.edu