Dunkirk: A Masterclass in How War Films Should Be Made

Chay Quinn reviews Christopher Nolan's take on the Dunkirk evacuations, saying it could be the director's masterpiece 5 stars.

(Image: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

I have no doubt in my mind that screenwriting and film-making students will be studying Dunkirk in the coming years and for good reason: it is brilliantly and persistently tense.

The triad of converging narratives in Nolan’s picture paired with the relentlessly fast tempo of Hans Zimmer’s score manages to keep the audience off of their seat from the opening sequence until the credits roll.

Therein lies the ingenuity behind this masterpiece; not in the tension it creates, but the way it sustains it throughout its 106-minute run-time via the ticking-clock of Zimmer’s unwaveringly high-tempo score.

The widely-focussed narrative of Dunkirk is another Nolan masterstroke with his ensemble cast each contributing an amazingly realistic performance to give this movie a terrific sense of scale, a feat that, if Nolan got it wrong, would have done a disservice to the memory of this pivotal military event.

In a variety of brilliant performances, special mention goes to Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, and surprisingly, Harry Styles, for their portrayal of the effect that the evacuations would have on the men involved.

Even at a non-IMAX screening, the beauty of the aerial shots was astounding and again provided scale to the event. The ground-shots of the beach were equally as beautiful and the tragic juxtaposition of the beauty with the horror of war really hit home how hopeless the situation was and provides the audience with an even greater emotional payoff when the film finally relents.

This relent perfectly encapsulates the bitter-sweet, or sweetly bitter, nature of the evacuations and puts the audience in both schools of thought nearly seamlessly and without conflict.

In summation, Dunkirk is a cinematic masterclass in tension that pays homage to the “victory” of the evacuations and the tragedy of those lost in perfect balance. Quite simply put, Dunkirk is Nolan’s magnum opus.

One thought on “Dunkirk: A Masterclass in How War Films Should Be Made

  1. I’m not sure Dunkirk really encapsulates how a war film should be made, and as much as I love it, it definitely doesn’t quite deserve five stars. Everything in the review is right, in that it picks up the right notes of why it’s good. The soundtrack uses interesting tricks to build up tension and further embed the three part time structure. The performances are all excellent, but serve to make the events the main focus, all of which is good, but Nolan misses a trick that takes it down in my books. The beautiful and tragic shots are less powerful because they aren’t accurate. A whole army was evacuating, so why are there only a bunch of guys, mostly with their uniform on the beach? Where are the thousands of vehicles and heavy vehicles, the countless supplies that would be needed to sustain all those people in one place for one time. Dunkirk wasnt a series of queues, but a huge mess. I’m entirely convinced that all the same dramatic notes and tension would be even greater if Nolan depicted the beaches more accurately, and a much better homage to the real “victory” could be made, but Nolan sacrifices making beauty out of dismay because he wants artsy shots of long queues. I want to see the Zimmer score over a proper scramble for keeping Britain fighting, i want to see the stress of getting not tidy queues onto ships, but huge swarms of men and machines. Imagine the lower notes of desperation you would get, and the much higher pay off after a successful evacuation. Dunkirk cannot be a cinematic masterclass because Nolan rests on a cheaper emotional pull of ‘look at the long row of people man thats long’ than the harder to manage and costlier, but more accurate depiction. A masterclass cannot settle for ‘good enough’, a masterclass five star film must put more effort in, and as much as I love Dunkirk, thats because it’s an interesting depiction, a perculiar depiction, a Nolan depiction, but not a cinematic masterclass, and certainly not Nolan’s magnum opus (yes that is Tenet tyvm)

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