Wrote this long back on Facebook. Sharing here now...
#Dunkirk: On the risk associated with the film and how it pushes the envelope of cinema. (NOT a review)
For all the 100 odd minutes of anxiety filled entertainment that it has to offer, Dunkirk- a "silent" war film is also art-house in equal measure. People discrediting (the risk involved in) Dunkirk, trash-talking otherwise, aren't the cinephiles they think they are. The risk (or its implied lack thereof) in Dunkirk is NOT entirely in the non-linear triptych structure of storytelling. The risk is in the way a war film is being told, not as traditional war-drama or victory but as a survival story about shared and communal heroism which is simultaneously also about defeat and retreat.
Going against the usual tried-and-tested formula of the traditional World War 2 genre, by shredding the film almost entirely of any political/historical context, blood & gore and even dialogue, Dunkirk showcases not just a unique story but also a unique way of storytelling. The risk is in creating a viscerally immersive experience at such an epic, monumental and uncompromising scale (typical of Nolan's other big spectacles) and also in engaging the audience emotionally without any dramatic context or back story of characters involved, just by focusing entirely on the physicality of the situation. And the risk pays off, brilliantly.
It proves to be worthwhile because Dunkirk subverts genre, but in the meanwhile also shows how the rawness of war can be presented, felt and interpreted, both from a individual and communal perspective. Now this is a film which might probably come out as "cold" and boring to many and that's not a problem. To really understand and truly appreciate it more, you just have to watch it again, which I did. I almost didn't enjoy the film on the first viewing, almost. But after a second viewing, I left the theatre more satisfied and appreciative of the film. There's a moment in the film when it strikes you what the director is really trying to do here, and from then on, it's a white knuckle ride of anxiety and tension and yes, emotion, because the "coldness" fades away.
The risk is in portraying the heavy subject matter of war and conveying its maximum intensity through such arty minimalism. If you saw it in IMAX, Dunkirk is the closest you'll ever be in war, to quote Nolan himsef- "like Virtual Reality without the headset." Dunkirk is not a War film. It is War. And that is how Nolan shows it to us, and therein lies the risk, to stimulate emotional resonance in the audience for a film bereft of dialogue and character arcs, without emotional manipulation, completely relying on his razor-sharp focus, impeccable attention to detail and unrivaled technical craftsmanship. Nolan takes world war and turns it into a symphony, a painting, just images and sound, for the audience to see, hear and feel what those soldiers trapped on that beach felt; thus rendering an intimate confluence of cinema, objective reality and its subjective experience. A purely in-the-moment, experiential film.
To its credit, (or not?) Dunkirk is an experimental art-house film masquerading as a studio blockbuster, a pure exercise in film-making. But an ingeniously remarkable exercise nonetheless, in its approach towards showcasing realism, the notion of time, the art of fear, chaos, subjectivity & objectivity, - themes which Nolan has been obsessed with since his debut. While The Dark Knight trilogy was an exhibit of heightened realism, Interstellar achieved cinematic immersion through irrealism or hyperstitional realism. Dunkirk makes a case in ultra-realism. Besides Inception, Dunkirk is the closest Nolan has ever come to avant garde film-making.
This is a film which filmmakers will inherently love and adore, the audience and critics not as much, not at least if you only just see it once. In the end, just like other Nolan films, Dunkirk is a rare achievement, an attempt at pushing the boundaries of artistic expression and stretching the potential of cinema. Just because one can't grasp enough to truly appreciate it, doesn't mean that it's not great or that there is no risk in the film-making.