DUNKIRK: once again, ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at film

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 07/26/2017

The declaration that “this motion picture was shot and finished on film” appears toward the end of the credit scroll in Christopher Nolan’s new WWII film Dunkirk. (I know because I’m in the projection booth at AMC Elmwood in Harahan running it this week.) Seeing those words inspired a grin, not only because the feature brings us a few more steps away from a filmpocalypse that once felt inevitable, not only because it provides employment to specialized workers, but because I think Dunkirk is the best recent example yet of what film – as opposed to digital – captures uniquely in moving-image storytelling.

In spite of spectacularly failing the Bechdel test, the film has earned very positive reviews and box office draw, being widely praised for its moral complexity, masterful style, and gripping war sequences. One of Dunkirk’s biggest pleasures for me is Hoyte van Hoytema’s stunning 70mm photography, which showcases man, beach, sea, and sky. Recent 70mm releases – Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, which set most of its action in a single room (a cabin during a blizzard), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master – surprised some viewers by using 70mm film to highlight subtleties and detail, mostly foregoing the kinds of virtuosic action sequences we associate with film’s most majestic format. Personally I think those films were deliberate and effective with this strategy, but the ongoing (admittedly niche) debate has revealed some surprising format-related expectations.

By contrast, Dunkirk makes spectacular use of the outdoors with shots of ocean flight, the long beach at Dunkirk, and the vastness of the sky dwarfing massive warships. But it also captures revelatory details: far-distant lightning strikes as a plane flies over a beach, and not only the wide eyes but also the entire faces of terrified soldiers in a darkened hold, the latitude of film stock fully revealing their attempts to make themselves invisible. Deep ocean blue, grey skies, and a fiery sunset are simply glorious. The film’s opening sequence, in a town on an overcast day, is dazzlingly crisp and textured. In terms of color and texture, I’ve never seen digital projection look anywhere near as good (and you especially won’t see it in general release approaching the quality of 70mm). By forcing so much attention onto his craft, Nolan has done a service to anyone viewing Dunkirk on 70mm, showing them exactly how immersive a motion picture can still be.

Which may be a bit of a surprise, given that its runtime is a tidy 106 minutes. The classic cinematic label of “war epic” doesn’t obviously apply, but perhaps only because its focus is different. Familiar features of grand narratives, like character arcs and backstories and love interests, are mostly absent. The plot, based on the actual WWII event, is known. But the sources of war are remote, even beyond comprehension. I think of the horrific battle climax of King Vidor’s silent WWI classic The Big Parade, in which every aspect of John Gilbert’s soldier’s humanity is ripped to shreds, leaving only animal terror and the notion that survival basically comes down to luck. Nolan relies less on the emotional force of building and then tearing apart likable people, instead placing them in morally difficult positions from the start. Generally, we don’t learn about them and they don’t learn about each other. The skill with which Nolan separates story from character is remarkable.

One thing all share: the raw, almost anonymous scramble for survival within chaos. Individuals can only react, and heroism is not available. There is no outright “winning,” only keeping one’s head, making a few snap decisions, and having the good fortune to talk about it later. This idea strikes me (perhaps in relation to WWII) as particularly British, and Dunkirk is a proudly British film, with a handful of shots that almost seem lifted from propaganda posters. But some would say that the idea of helplessly reacting to remote, incomprehensibly powerful forces describes more and more the state of the capitalistic world. As the world of cinema continues to cleave – between escapist fantasy franchises and complex realism, between analog and digital – we might wonder if the attention to detail lavished upon Dunkirk reveals more of us to ourselves than we expect. – TB

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dir. William Eggleston