It's the sound. The score, I should say. Hans Zimmer is hugely instrumental in making this film what it is. It's odd to talk about the score, because there's very little music on it, but there it is, pinning you down and pummeling you. I actually began to feel a little sick; I could partly put that down to the early morning rise, hasty porridge, and walk down to the station to get to this showing; but there's no doubt that the physical power of the soundtrack was producing this state. And it never let up. It couldn't, because though the nature of real battle, even a battle for survival like this one, does include spells of nothingness, the film had to convey this central fact, that the ordeal would not end until either they were captured or they were rescued. This film immerses you, filling all the senses it can with the one overwhelming feeling which struck me very quickly when soldiers find they're being shot at by the Germans who are already on the edge of the town: desperation.
I admit I came to this film with many ideas about it in my head, from various pieces I'd read. Several reviews, often praising it to the skies but still seeking to to show their reviewerly skill by being sniffy about certain aspects. One aspect sadly is that the director Christopher Nolan is now being rated as one of the greats, at least potentially, which makes any reviewer run to have reservations because they of course know better. Me - well, I'm not sure it is his best film but why don't we just leave the technical discussion for those extremely worthwhile college media studies courses. There are one or two things which I'd have done differently but somehow I'm prepared to let him off completely, because not only does he demonstrate that he knows what he's doing, but Dunkirk is so very obviously a film which he cares passionately about.
Let's address one or two things I've heard. The main one is the time structure, which some writers profess to find confusing. It isn't. It's made perfectly clear what's going on at the very beginning, with the nature of the three timelines, on the beach, at sea, and in the air. Sure, there's some rapid cutting at certain points, but just pay a little attention and you won't get lost.
The second major complaint was inevitable - that of historical accuracy. All historical cinema faces this one. I'd already decided that the nerdy nitpicks I'm prone to, especially whenever planes are involved, weren't going to bother me. To briefly explain: Nolan wanted minimal CGI, and maximum real dogfighting, and you could only have that by using Messerschmidt substitutes which plane buffs spot straight away. Well, even someone like me will - and did - forget all that stuff, because it is so immersive, and because the Spitfire vs. 109 fights are brilliantly well filmed. And the not-a-Heinkel bomber was great too! Now, Nolan did use CGI for the Stuka dive bombers. No getting round that, there aren't any flying Stukas any more. But Nolan's method here was to focus on the terrible sound of those machines, and the impact of their bombs hitting the beach and the ships. And right now, you're thinking, this is the issue he wants to talk about relating to historical accuracy??
Yes - the historical questions - Churchill's decisions, in particular holding back some of the support he could have ordered in to the fray; the actual part played by the little boats (not really as crucial as suggested in the film); the extent to which the French were deserted; and the biggest of all, whether Dunkirk was the miracle which saved the nation or not. Well, there's very little dialogue in the film. Some characters go nameless. There's a little exposition, which Kenneth Branagh handles capably as the senior officer on the mole which is at the heart of the action.
And then there's a different historical reality which is still something I find hard to come to terms with, the one criticism I would make, if I wanted to criticise. The numbers. The numbers of everything: where are all those 400,000 men on the beach, for starters? Google some pictures and you'll see that those beaches were packed, horribly so as targets for the Stukas. And the skies should be filled with planes, and the sea with ships. There were a huge number of ships there, Navy destroyers and civilian ferries. Not to mention that by the time this drama is supposed to be taking place, the town of Dunkirk was being shelled to pieces; but we see no devastation there.
No. It's okay, I realise that now. Sitting back and contemplating this stuff will make you view some shots like those of the beaches and start querying it. It's a mistake. Go back to the experience of watching the film. Christopher Nolan does get across the enormity of Dunkirk, but it's not by filling the screen with artificiality. It's with the truthfulness of the cast's acting, from the Tommies to the RAF pilots to the little group of civilian boat owners on their own tragic little voyage over the Channel. It's the close up flying of real physical planes. It's the terrifying sinking of a minesweeper. It's the frightening sensation of bullets tearing right past you, of the explosions of falling bombs coming ever closer. And it's that extraordinary soundtrack. Dunkirk does respect and honour those real historical events, but we shouldn't be asking for a history lesson, because this is pure, brilliant cinema. Writing this has decided it for me. Yes, it's a masterpiece.