When I was reviewing the marketing campaign for Dunkirk, the latest movie from director Christopher Nolan, I was intrigued by how Warner Bros. had made two decisions in selling it to audiences: First, Nolan and his name recognition was front and center, building on the popularity of his previous films including The Dark Knight Trilogy, Interstellar and more. Second, the studio went all-in on the historical angle, with VR experiences, interactive websites and other efforts that let people explore the true events of what’s depicted in the movie.
The story takes three perspectives on that story. There’s the events on the beach, where we follow a British soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he tries one way after another to get on a ship that’s heading home. There’s the events on the water, as we follow Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) one of the citizen sailors conscripted by the British Navy to take their small civilian ships across the English Channel to rescue the soldiers. Finally, there’s the events in the air, as pilots of the RAF including Farrier (Tom Hardy) target the German fighters and bombers who are taking out British warships coming in and out of Dunkirk.
Aside from the emphasis on Nolan as a brand name and the goal of educating the audience, the Dunkirk campaign *looked* like a Christopher Nolan movie. The trailers and posters sold a movie that featured incredible, stark visuals with clean lines and a color palette filled with dark blues and grays. If you watch the Dark Knight movies – especially the last two – as well as Interstellar, The Prestige and Inception, you’ll see that Nolan loves a cool color selection. Visually, then, this fit in with and reinforced in the minds of the audience the kind of movie they could expect from the director.
The final movie delivers on that promise. The story moves along with the cool efficiency we’ve come to expect from Nolan, who knows how to frame a shot in a way that’s both unemotional and packed with tension. His direction to the actors was essential here since, unlike most movies, there’s very little dialogue to move the story along.
There are about three instances, all involving either Rylance’s weekend sailor out to rescue the troops or the Navy’s Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), where they actually convey important expositional details. They’re the only ones who really talk about what’s going on in a way that sets things up for the audience. Everything else just…happens…and we need to follow along. Looking back at the trailers, that should have been more clear to me. There’s very little dialogue in what’s shown, instead focusing on the visuals. So the campaign pretty accurately sold a movie that’s not exactly silent but isn’t packed with characters walking the audience through the story via conversations.
What was less clear in the campaign is the slightly disjointed nature of the way Nolan tells the story. Each one of the three perspectives – Air, Land and Sea – happens during a different length of time, so things move along at different paces depending on what we’re seeing. Eventually you get used to that and understand what story we’ve jumped back to, but that’s again because of a stylistic choice Nolan made, giving each one of the three a different visual tone. That becomes a shorthand that lets the audience know what they’re now watching.
In the press campaign, Whitehead was called out as the breakthrough star of the movie. And he’s great as a soldier who will do whatever’s necessary to get to the front of the line and get home. He’s the emotional core of the story, the one whose fate the audience is most asked to become invested in, and handles that well. You have to stand up and applaud the performances of old pros Rylance and Branagh, though. These two veterans know just how to play their characters and are always a pleasure to watch. Rylance plays the “It’s our duty, so that’s what we’re doing” part, embodying the stiff upper lip the British are known for, the mindset that got them through the war. Branagh covers similar ground as he does whatever he can or needs to do to help the troops whose fate he shares. With Nolan working with certain actors time and again (Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and more), I’d be fine with these two joining his troupe.
That Dunkirk delivers almost exactly the experience its campaign promised audiences is likely a big reason it repeated as the number one movie at the box office this past weekend. There’s very little, just the shifting story perspectives, that wasn’t clearly conveyed in the marketing, showing that when it comes to directors like Christopher Nolan, a simple and honest message is the best tactic.