The Bangla colloquial for a movie is “boi” or book. It is not hard to figure out why, the appreciation of a film, for most, is predicated upon the story. Unless you are the film-school type, you are not really watching for shot composition, camera angle, scene transitions, lighting, and even though you often say “The film should have been better edited” to look wise on social media, without really understanding what film-editing is, what you actually mean is that the story didn’t catch you.
Christopher Nolan’s reputation as a superstar director is built upon his consistent mastery over the narrative. Whether it be putting the elements out-of-sequence (Memento), or nesting elements (Inception), or playing with time (Interstellar), or working on audience assumptions (Prestige), Nolan understands the power of the twist, the pace, the lines, and the character. You remember the beginning (or is it the end) of Memento, you wonder what happens to the totem in Inception, you shake your head at the resolution of the Prestige, and you definitely want to be the Joker.
In Dunkirk he does something strange even by Nolan’s standards. He lets the story go. That is the biggest and only twist of Dunkirk, and you realize that within minutes of the film opening. Unlike the war stories you have grown up to love, be it “Saving Private Ryan” or “Apocalypse Now” or “Platoon”, Dunkirk has very little story and a whole lot of war. You are dropped into the war zone, like a first-person-shooter, and then it is nothing but pure cinema, sights, sounds, and music, with very little in the way of narrative support. No characters to root for, no back-stories, just the screech of torpedoes, the roaring of Spitfires, the boom of ordnance, and huddled masses, waiting for deliverance or destruction. There is conflict though, a lot of it, but it is not the standard dramatic conflict, because no story remember, but between war, of steel and mortar and fire, and humanity, not bravery so much, but of humanity, in ways that are subtle and yet immensely poignant. There are characters, and people, of course, but nameless, without a past or a future, props for the story without a story, floating, flying and fighting in a cocoon of cold Kubrikian terror.
Which is why this is a film which will have widely varying reactions. For those whose enjoyment of a film depends on them anchoring to a story and a character arc, there is nothing to hang on to. No Marlon Brando, no Tom Hanks, no rousing tale of redemption or bravery, no politics, no love. Instead Dunkirk is directorial bravura , almost arrogant in its disdain for conventionalities, which depending on the way you swing, could either be taken to be self-indulgent hubris or supreme confidence in ability.
For me though this works. Spectacularly. Nolan redeems himself after the less than stellar “Interstellar”, establishing himself as one of the most visionary directors alive.
Dunkirk was a miracle. So is this movie.