War is horror. It always has been and it always will be. Whether you are storming beaches, shooting down bombers, or swimming for dear life, it is the scariest thing a human being can experience. Yet, we have used the celluloid art form to turn it into a vessel to display valor and heroism. We cheer for victories and lament at defeat. We have turned war into something romantic. We’ve shaped it into a phony display of genre cliche’s and typical plot beats. Occasionally, we get a great story out of a war film, but only a handful of films (like Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’) actually deliver the horror that war truly represents.
Well, that horror is finally on full display in Christopher Nolan’s latest masterpiece, ‘Dunkirk’. And I mean on full display. Never before, in the history of cinema, has a film so thoroughly represented the experience of war. Nolan has called this film virtual reality without having to use the glasses. I can’t think of a more apt way of putting it. Virtual reality and ‘Call of Duty’ video games quite literally have nothing on this film. You can grab your control, turn your wall projected HD screen on, and kick the sound up as loud as you want. It still won’t have shit on the intensity that you will experience watching ‘Dunkirk’ in IMAX.
My profound passion for a film was actually born from a war film. When I was ten or eleven years old my father let me watch ‘Apocalypse Now’ with him late one night. Up to that point movies had just been entertainment, but ‘Apocalypse Now’ was so much more. It was a glimpse into a past that I would never want to experience first hand, but couldn’t take my eyes off of when it was lit up before me. This film is still the greatest war film of all time (if not the single greatest film of all time), but Nolan’s film manages to do something that movie couldn’t. It makes the audience a character in carnage.
By dropping the audience in the streets of ‘Dunkirk’ from the outset, giving us no back story for our characters, and never showing us who our enemy is, Nolan creates an existential threat that the audience is meant to feel. There is not just one man surviving the gun fire that fills the streets, three sailor taking their boat out to save soldiers, or three pilots flying to take out German fighters. There is always you, in every scene. By engulfing the screen in the largest and clearest images imaginable, Nolan transports to these locations he has filmed. There has truly never been anything like it before.
Even the narrative is uniquely layered to never let you off the hook. The soldiers on the beach section takes place over a week. The civilian sailors coming to rescue them is a day. And the pilots taking out the Germans is an hour. Which could have worked as three distinct acts, but not in Nolan’s world. Like I wrote before, he never lets you off the hook here. When you think you have a minute to relax or that you are about to get to know one of your fellow soldiers, a bomb is dropped on a beach, bullets riddle a ship, or you have to swim for dear life. It keeps your heart pounding so much that it might jump out of your chest.
As a matter of fact, I’m not sure I will ever be able to swim in the ocean again after watching this. You thought ‘Jaws’ made you afraid of going in the water? That Spielberg classic has got nothing on this. There are so many horrible ways to drown that I have never really thought about before, but ‘Dunkirk’ is so relentless that I wont ever forget again. Over the course of this films 106 minute run time, I was right next to soldiers Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles) while they swam to avoid getting crushed by a ship, escape a torpedoed ship that was flipped over and rushing with water, avoid getting shot while bullet holes fill a small small boat up with water, and so many more.
The intensity is so palpable that you could walk into the theater with vampire finger nails and walk out with bloody cuticles. Never has a movie been such a pulse pounding nail biter as this one is. It is so riddled with intense fear that we might actually need to rethink what the horror genre is. Is it some cheesy guy in a mask that is stabbing people? Or is it being stuck under water while the surface water spreads with flames and you have to watch a soldier decide if he drowns or burns to death. I think I’d rather take my chances with cheesy slasher, because the other is real horror.
It’s not all frightening though. Some of it is sheer exhilaration. The section of the film involving Tom Hardy chasing down German fighter planes in his Spitfire is about the most breathtaking thing I have ever seen in my life. Baring witness to these planes gliding through the clouds on an IMAX screen is about the closest thing a normal person might get to the majesty of the sky. Yet, that’s not good enough for Nolan. He needs to put you in the cockpit and on the wing of a real WWII plane that is soaring through the clouds. He needs you to see down the crosshairs of the plane while it tries desperately to meet its target. It’s unbelievable and worth the price of admission all on its on.
The bottom line: this is the most cinematic war experience ever put on screen. This is a movie that is intended to be seen on the biggest screen imaginable and as many times as possible. It’s a movie that will still be great when you see it at home, but will never be half what it is on the big screen. This is big budget filmmaking at its most artistic. Which is why by the end of this year you will likely look back and think about it with longing for more theatrical experiences of this caliber. ‘Dunkirk’ is not just one of the best war movies ever, one of the best movies of the year, or one of the best of the decade. This is one of the greatest theatrical experiences of all time. And movies are meant to be seen in the theater.