Not every very best 2017 film is an instant Academy Award contender that debuted at the September film festivals. One is the deservedly heralded DUNKIRK, which premiered theatrically in July and has just arrived on home entertainment. Given its overall quality, it was not surprising that, even though it had already played theatrically, DUNKIRK was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival as an extra-special event. This screening was held to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of IMAX, with Christopher Nolan, its director-writer-co-producer, in attendance and in a post-screening conversation.
DUNKIRK was filmed almost completely employing IMAX cameras and, previously, Nolan had used the technology while shooting THE DARK KNIGHT, which like DUNKIRK is a rare big-budget special effects title that oozes intelligence and is much more than your standard contemporary cinematic eye-candy. For indeed, DUNKIRK also is not your standard war film, good bad or indifferent. Such films center on individual soldiers and their experiences and heroics in battle. One recent highly acclaimed example is Mel Gibson’s HACKSAW RIDGE.
What makes DUNKIRK so unusual is that there are no true central characters. It is, at its core, an ode to the heroism of average British citizens as they responded to the German onslaught in the early days of World War II. Nolan succeeds brilliantly in allowing viewers to feel as if they are smack-dab in the middle of the conflict. If anything, the star of DUNKIRK is its chilling, brilliantly devised soundtrack, which eerily captures the essence of the second-by-second horror of being constantly, endlessly under attack.
While watching the film, I found myself literally jumping out of my seat when a quiet lull was followed by the sharp, jarring sound of gunfire. But also, DUNKIRK is a film that transcends the place and time in which it is set as it centers on otherwise average, ordinary individuals and the manner in which they survive amid the chaos that is enveloping their lives.
Of course, certain war films are fashioned as blatant anti-war stories. Among the more celebrated are the original ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, which dates from 1930 and is based on the celebrated Erich Maria Remarque novel. This film was a deserved early Best Picture Academy Award-winner. Then there is Stanley Kubrick’s and Kirk Douglas’s PATHS OF GLORY, from 1957, which I often screen in my film courses. Even though it is a half-century old and shot in the dreaded black-and-white, PATHS OF GLORY is a must-see for those whose parents may not have been born in 1957.
Still, the argument may be made that, by its very nature, any war film may be viewed as an anti-war story. To my mind, any film that features needless carnage or innocent civilians caught in the crossfire or twenty-something soldiers whose lives are destroyed or ended by their wartime encounters may be categorized as anti-war. And this is one of the subtexts that resonates through DUNKIRK.
If you have not yet seen DUNKIRK, by all means do so. For beyond its sobering subject matter and brilliant filmmaking, it is one of the very best films of the year.
Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
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