Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is a film we don't deserve, but desperately need right now
The opening shot of The Prestige shows a bunch of top hats lying on the ground, in the middle of a cold, woody forest. The shot plays for 15 seconds and disappears. It isn't until much later that the significance of those hats is revealed, and the first time you're watching the film, it's unlikely you instantly connect then that what you just saw was also the very first image of the film – and for good reason.
To enjoy such mastery, a Christopher Nolan film must be watched again and again. (And again.)
Dunkirk, admittedly, is no different. Which means that it'll be a while before we collectively grasp the various primal levels at which the film works. The sensory experience of Dunkirk — with its mind-opening IMAX shots and immersive sound design — is only the packaging. War has never felt this close to you on the big screen before, and with Nolan continuing to bend cinema-time at will, Dunkirk, like every Nolan film yet, will only age with actual time. ("If there is such a thing," a Nolan fan might ponder.)
For a filmmaker known more for technical precision and narrative wizardry, it is often astounding how Chris Nolan gently injects layers such as complex emotions and literary nuance into the craft on display, and this is only apparent as every piece in the jigsaw puzzle falls into place, one viewing at a time.
Because that's the thing about Christopher Nolan's cinema – you have to engage with it. You have to debate with it, question it and seek answers within the film itself. Then again, some of those questions may have no answers; and the true experience of watching a Nolan film is to make peace with the answers you eventually get, and the answers that you never will.
This act, of questioning what you see and hear, and engaging with that which you don't fully understand or agree with, was what once described what an 'intellectual' was. Unfortunately, the world has lost that word today, as it found itself corrupted into something grotesque, a word that's often thrown around as slur.
Yet, Nolan helps us reclaim that word and put it back into good use, simply by giving us Dunkirk now.
At a time when the world seems to be hurtling towards war, Nolan puts us in the middle of it. With uncomfortable silences, all-engulfing visual imagery and a breathless pace topped with the Nolan-linear narrative (if you will), he shows us that when you're in the middle of war, an individual's actions cannot be judged one way or the other, because the war itself — a product of an egotistical collective cloaked as nationalism — is a colossal exercise in the ruin of the individual.
As we move between the three separate fronts where the battles in Dunkirk ensue — the land, signifying defeat, despair and death; the air, signifying freedom and victory; and the sea, depicting the bridge between defeat and victory — we catch a glimpse of what war truly means, and why we must avoid it at all costs.
There are delicate moral issues at play in the film, and we watch mesmerised in silence, as the war turns soldiers into deserters, pits one man against the other even though everyone's on the same side. Without showing us a single face or person from the 'enemy side', Nolan deconstructs war with his mastery, showing us that the greatest enemy is war itself.
Then again, there are questions that you would still want to ask of the film.
Why, for instance, does this film ultimately fall back on the same glorification of the Allied powers – particularly Great Britain in this film – that we've seen all these years, despite the fact that British imperialism has had a large hand to play in the civil strife that we see across the most conflicted areas on the planet?
Is this, at its core, merely white privilege manifesting itself into yet another war film, no matter how unique an experience it is? Or does Nolan have a subtle statement hidden somewhere deeper in his narrative, where he balances out this visible glorification in his own way?
Memento, which first brought Nolan's now-trademark non-linearity into cult consciousness, was a film that posed a fundamental question to the viewer in me.
Was its non-linearity a mere gimmick, and the only reason the film was such a gripping, jaw-dropping watch? Does the writing of the film actually back the suspense created by that unique, still-unparalleled cinematic narrative?
To seek these answers many years ago, the student of cinema in me put the film on an edit timeline, as I made the film linear myself. And then, I watched the linear version of Memento, and I got my answer.
Every Nolan film has the ability to spawn such engagement, such an urge for answers; and with Dunkirk, we have a film that could, with repeated viewings, help us make sense of this grotesque world we live in, where even in times of peace, the citizenry is at war with each other on the basis of ideology and imaginary divides we create among ourselves.
With Dunkirk, we finally have a magnum opus from Nolan that's set in a real, identifiable world; and it raises questions about the worst side of humankind – war.
Ironically (and hence, unfortunately) war also gives individuals the greatest opportunity to show what it truly means, to be human.