Dunkirk isn't just a “war film”. It's great cinema. | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 10, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, August 10, 2017

Dunkirk isn't just a “war film”. It's great cinema.

Dunkirk is a brilliant film about war, though it is not a “war film” in the traditional sense of the term. War movies are often for rah-rah patriots, but the Battle of Dunkirk was not a victory or a glorious last stand. It was a retreat. 

The film shows courage and grace under pressure but is ultimately about an army who were in an unwinnable position. And so it is a movie that also happens to be about trying to stay alive, about trying to escape. It is not just for history buffs or Anglophiles, its themes have a universal appeal. Its very human story, unusual topic for a summer blockbuster, and – of course – its writer-director make it worthwhile for anyone to check out. 

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It also happens to be excellent.

The story of the film deals exclusively with the battle from the British perspective, which is forgivable. In typical Nolan-esque fashion it is a non-linear narrative. Three different story threads are played roughly in parallel, depicting three different aspects of the battle over different timeframes that eventually merge together to create a single timeframe. The first story is told from the perspective of a young British soldier (many of our readers are older than this character) and depicts the battle on the beach, spanning a week. This sequence is genuinely harrowing. The German army had stopped advancing on the trapped soldiers, instead choosing to pick them off slowly using their air force. The British had nothing on the beach that could effectively fight back against the planes, and so we see periodic and inevitable slaughter. Bombs are dropped. Shells are fired. Ships are sunk by prowling submarines, taking fleeing soldiers and wounded men down to watery graves. Characters we follow can and do die suddenly.

The second timeline deals with the last day of the evacuation. After the British navy decided to reserve the bulk of its warships for the final defence of the UK, Dunkirk's soldiers were rescued by hundreds of civilian ships pressed into service. We follow the small crew of one such private ship as they sail into ever increasing danger. This is one of the more psychologically complex passages, dealing with themes of duty and wrestling with the horrible effects of PTSD. 

Most thrilling of all, and masterfully intercut between the other two stories is the flight of a squadron of three Spitfires who try to clear the skies of German planes attacking the ships and the troops on the ground. Limited by their fuel, they can only fly for an hour. The dogfights resemble an elaborate game of chess, fortunes turning on a dime. It's a treat to follow, especially with the wide angle cameras capturing the wide skies and oceans in a way we just haven't seen in these films before.

A big part of the tension of the film (apart from the sound design) is how it uses shifts in perspective to create twists in the tale. Events you see take on new significance as you see another character's story. The way the film builds a certain expectation or convinces the audience of an outcome, only to turn it on its head later is consistently refreshing and never feels artificial. At no point in the script does it succumb to Spielberg-style sentimentality.

It is, in short, well worth the two hours and few hundreds of Taka it'll cost you at the theatre. Do catch it on the big screen while you have the chance. You'll want that big surround sound too, trust me.

Zoheb Mashiur is a prematurely balding man with bad facial hair and so does his best to avoid people. Ruin his efforts by writing to zoheb.mashiur@gmail.com

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