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Christopher Nolan redefines war movies with ‘Dunkirk’

(‘Dunkirk’ Movie Official Facebook Page)

It is easy to say that Christopher Nolan is one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation. Over the last 20 years, Nolan has made a career of telling the story of good versus evil under the umbrella of science fiction and comic book narratives. But here, he has decided to do something different, something completely out of his character, which speaks volumes of his unparalleled talent.

His latest blockbuster, “Dunkirk,” is about the evacuation of over 300,000 British troops who were trapped in Dunkirk, France surrounded by Germans in the beginning of the Second World War. Nolan tells this story through three parallel narratives: the soldiers (Fionn Whitehead) stranded on the beach in Dunkirk, a British pilot (Tom Hardy), and a civilian captain (Mark Rylance) who lives just a boat ride away from the war zone. They all have the same mission: get these troops home.

What’s different about this film in comparison with the rest of Nolan’s repertoire is that this film is not character driven. Yes, there are strong leading characters in the movie, but at the same time, it’s not about them. The audience doesn’t meet a character and learn about his/her life in a traditional way, while watching him/her go on an exaggeratedly emotional journey where they descend on some degree of self-actualization.

This story isn’t about an individual. It is about an event. An event that happened to around 400,000 people, and Nolan’s castings are just representations of what happened to these people. Nolan gives us these three main characters so the audience knows what is happening on land, air and sea during the evacuation. They were being shot at from around the corner, starving on a beach, getting “rescued” by the Allied forces while then being bombed three minutes later.

Nolan could have taken an easier approach to this story with well-known figures of the time like Winston Churchill or the senior commander of the British army, Alan Brooke. But this film is not about them. It is not about the strategy of war, it’s about the experience of war. It is about the horrors that ordinary young men are being put through on the battlefield. It is about suffering and the will to survive.

Director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema (who worked with Nolan on “Interstellar”) brilliantly captured the mood of the soldiers with his camera. The audience is able to get up close and personal with the characters and feel their exhaustion and paranoia, producing a deeper level of intimacy.

The audience sees every emotion from soldiers trying to sneak onto an overcrowded rescue ship to Hardy’s eyes flickering with fear when he notices a German plane right behind him.  “Dunkirk” makes you want to root for them while simultaneously grab your seat when you watch them cover their head right before each bombing. You feel like you know these characters thanks to Hoytema, despite them only haven spoke 10 words throughout the piece.

What makes this film work is the beautiful union between Nolan and composer Hans Zimmer. These two (whose first partnership was in 2005) know exactly how to work together to achieve great success. With Nolan’s lack of dialogue Zimmer had to advance the plot with his music. His unconventional music through the use of everyday objects (a ticking clock for example) had the audience in the palm of Nolan’s hand. From paranoia to anxiety to panic to relief and hope, I felt all these emotions thanks to Zimmer’s score.

Christopher Nolan made a name for himself by telling grand stories about people and their quest to do the right thing in a world full of superheroes and science-fiction. Here, he left his comfort zone and told a story about humanity’s desire to survive and their innate core objectives to help others in need.

It’s shown in one of the final scenes when a civilian is handing a surviving soldier the paperwork announcing the evacuation was a success. People are home safe; the bombing has stopped. We can finally breathe a sigh of relief. But then we remember that it’s only 1940. It’s not over, long from it actually. The war has just begun. The fight continues.

Lauren LaMagna can be reached at llamagna@umass.edu and followed on twitter at @laurenlamagno.

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