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Dunkirk movie poster

I've had a busy couple of weeks of movies! Three movies in the past two weekends, and planning on seeing Spider-Man: Homecoming in the next couple days. But first, while trying to keep ourselves entertained in Des Moines, my girlfriend and I decided to kill a couple hours at the movies and checked out the newly-released war movie from Christopher Nolan: Dunkirk.

I'll admit that it took me a little while to figure out this movie's chronological structure. Director Christopher Nolan decided to edit the movie into a non-sequential order, in which individual scenes jump back and forth between points in the movie's timeline (sometimes to show the same event again, but this time from a different point of view). There's three main storylines running in parallel: a pair of soldiers trying to catch a boat off the beach, a pair of pilots hunting down German bombers, and a civilian yacht captain setting sail to help rescue the stranded British army. Early in the movie, the scenes with the soldiers take place at night, and the scenes on the planes and in the yacht take place during the day.

At first, I thought maybe this was some kind of time zone difference. Like maybe the scenes on the boat were taking place sufficiently east that the sun had already set; whereas, the planes were flying far enough west that the sun hadn't set yet. This wasn't the case. The movie was, in fact, shifting between an aerial pursuit taking place during one afternoon and the boat escapes that happened the night before (or several nights before). Maybe I missed something at the beginning of the movie that made this all more clear?

I didn't have any trouble following along with the non-linear, compressed time in Inception, but this movie threw me off a tiny bit simply because I wasn't expecting it. Once I realized how the movie actually worked, it was easy to follow along with each of the individual threads, and to start to see where and how they intersected. Not a deal-breaker in any way. By the end, everything comes together quite nicely.

The early movie cycles between the day of the evacuation and conflict from the night before.

Much like War for the Planet of the Apes (which is quite good), Dunkirk is a surprisingly slow and quiet movie. Dialogue is sparse, and the unique way in which the timeline is structured means that the cacophony of battle is spread out evenly over the course of almost 2 hours. That isn't to say that the movie is dull. The dialogue and sound that is presented is done to excellent effect. This particular structure and pacing allows the movie to slowly ratchet up the tension for almost its entire runtime.

There's almost no direct conflict with the Germans (other than a couple plane dogfights). The German army and navy remains an almost entirely unseen threat that strikes from the shadows with devastating effect. The German army shells the British army from over the horizon. Fighters make strafing runs and dive bombers drop their payloads from within the clouds and fog, with only the terrifying wail of their descent signaling their presences. U-boots torpedo British ships from below the waves - heck, we never even see a German U-boot throughout the entire film. The one time that German soldiers actually show up on screen, they are blurred and shadowed, leaving them as ghostly silhouettes rather than actual people. Heck, I'm not even sure if the movie ever even once referred to them as "Germans"; I think it always said "the enemy". All this indirect combat (along with the slow, methodical pacing and structure of the film) gives Dunkirk a feeling more like a horror or thriller than an actual war movie.

Dunkirk - stuck on the beach
Dunkirk is slow, methodical, and paced more like a horror movie than a war movie.

Also breaking with war movie norms, it isn't the army that comes in to save the civilians; it's the civilians that show up to save the army.

None of this should be taken as criticism though. Dunkirk grabbed my attention and didn't let it go for the entire hour and forty-six minutes, which simultaneously felt like forever, and also no time at all.

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