Dunkirk

I was thinking recently that there are few really intellectual movie directors these days – or maybe it’s the stories that are missing. I mean stories that really challenge and make you think, that posit alternative views or defy established frameworks. Most movies these days are entertainment, though sometimes the entertainment is high art, brilliantly conceived, brilliantly executed. I have no argument with that, and take as much pleasure in it as the average man in the street – I love movies. There are view though that start with an intellectual viewpoint – most are fantasies in some way, or renderings of reality either historical or fictional. They are human dramas that explore feelings and confrontation, or escapist pictures that take us on an extended ride. Often times you’ll come out of the cinema and for hours later the images will reverberate in your mind, and possibilities echo – but equally the story will be forgotten come the next day.

Probably my favourite modern day film-maker is Christopher Nolan. Recently I sat on my couch and re-watched a couple of his big movies, Inception and Interstellar. Both are fabulously imaginative films that bend and warp your mind with the possibilities and conjecture they present. I love both movies, as much the second or third time around as the first. For someone who loves to believe in extraordinary possibilities I lap these up.

I’m a man who wants to believe in the extraordinary, in ghosts and vampires, in alien worlds and time travel. I love physics, and the thought that we are the tiniest of tiny specks at the corner of a tiny galaxy is both astounding and thrilling. I want the world to be more than it appears because I like mystery and wonder, want to be intrigued and led on by it. I want more than what I see, and yet I’m also a rational being – I can believe in the physics, but no matter how much I wish it I can’t conceive of heaven or hell.

Christopher Nolan is of similar ilk if his movies are anything to go by. He is fascinated by the same possibilities – fake realities, black holes, mind bending possibilities. He is such a master that the worlds he creates have both depth and intelligence. Is he an intellectual movie director? I don’t doubt he has a significant intellect, but though our minds become engaged with his films, they operate on a level that is more visceral. The wonder we feel comes from our gut. Later I might find myself exploring his worlds with my mind, reminded of the wonder, but I am not made to think differently, just more.

On the weekend I caught up with his latest movie, Dunkirk. I’m late to this party, with it being much lauded when it came out a few months ago. It’s different from Nolan’s more recent films in that it deals with a historical moment. Like Saving Private Ryan, it is a rendering of a key moment in World War Two.

It shares a kind of fidelity with Saving Private Ryan: it feels true, it seems authentic. This is what it was like, you think. You realise how rare it is to feel that. This was more than entertainment, it was supra-entertainment. It was different to Saving Private Ryan in that it does not contain the hectic onrush of action, but rather is a series of set-pieces that move forward with their own momentum before joining together a single narrative thread. It’s a much quieter movie, without the bombast, and certainly not the brutality and gore of the other movie. Nolan is less interested in representing that.

I was surprised in fact in how little the enemy intruded into the story. They were represented obliquely, a presence over yonder, pressing hard but unseen; and in the disembodied presence of Me-109’s doing battle over the English Channel, and HE-111’s swooping in to bomb minesweepers. Nolan is telling England’s story.

I used to be a big student of military history. I knew well that Germany had squandered its chance to drive the British and French allies into the sea at Dunkirk. Instead Hitler had called a halt and gave permission to Goering’s Luftwaffe to make the kill – at which they failed abjectly. History might be different now had Hitler let Rommel have his head – the English were ripe for the execution. Even knowing all that I was surprised at how ineffective and remote the Luftwaffe were as rendered in this movie.

This is a great human story that very effectively gets at the complex set of emotions the various participants experience and deal with – the shell-shocked survivor, the admiral trying to get survivors off the beach, the desperate soldiers looking to flee thwarted at almost every turn, and the decent, gentle English sailor doing his bit to save the day.

As entertainment this was enthralling, like watching a story with a ticking clock. I know how history tells how it turned out, but it was the individual stories that kept me at the edge of my seat. As I said, it felt so real – this is just a movie but, you think, it happened just like that. If not this salty skipper, then there was another just like him on that day.

A lot of people are saying this is the best movie of the year. I can understand that. It’s the best movie I’ve seen this year, and I can’t wait for Nolan’s next.

This is not an intellectual movie in the sense that it poses questions of us, but it is a movie conceived of and made with great intelligence and intellect.

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