In which we discuss the inter-locking timelines, emotional investment, casting, Nolan worship, Christian humanism, and the awesomeness that is the name Hoyte van Hoytema.
Me: So, how much did it affect your ability to appreciate the film that he did what he did with the three timelines?
LS: Well, I didn’t really understand the three timelines at all until it was explained to me after the movie. Basically, I saw the labels saying the times, but I had no idea what was going on. But afterwards, when I understood it, I thought that it was pretty cool. It was a cool idea.
Me: So did it leave you… did it kind of keep you distant from the film that you couldn’t understand what was going on?
LS: Slightly. But also I think part of the reason I didn’t get quite so emotionally whammed was because the whole thing was very sad. And usually, I’m more emotional about movies that are sad, but also funny, so that my emotions are going up and down and up and down, and it sort of wears me out, and then I get really emotional. But I sort of felt… it was a little easier to not be emotional here, even though it was a very intense film, because you were feeling so much of, like, one emotion.
Me: I think that’s a valid criticism, and I… was expecting it to be more inspiring. It is inspiring, but I was expecting a little bit more inspirational oomph, from the trailer, because I know the story of Dunkirk. I’ve known it since I was a little kid, and I know how heart-lifting it is. And we get the one really big heart-lifting moment, and Branagh is walking along, he’s calling out to the civilians like, “Where are you from, where are you from?” And that’s just like, awwww…
Me: You just love that, I wanted a little more of that! But it’s like almost immediately, we turn right back around, and we plunge back into the harrowing journey of the soldiers that we’re following. It’s like right up to the end, there’s something, there’s always some new terror that they have to face. There’s always the reminder of this other person who didn’t make it, or this person who died, or this or that tragedy.
LS: And I think that in one way, yes, that was incredibly realistic. But I think also, because there is a lot of inspiration that comes out of war stories, that they should have balanced them just a little bit more. And yeah, there’s a lot of terror, and people dying everywhere, and people who didn’t make it, but there are also the people who did make it, and their stories, and the happiness they found in the end.
Me: …Maybe one of the most moving moments is when the blind man just feels the face of the boy. And the boy, they deliberately picked someone who was about 18 years old….
LS: He looked like it, yeah.
Me: Yeah, because that is kind of about how old the soldiers would have been. And typically in these things, actors are cast down in age. So typically, you would have like a 28-year-old actor playing a young British soldier. But Nolan was like, “No, I really want to find an authentically young guy that nobody’s gonna recognize, so he can be just the face of British youth.” And I mentioned this in the theater, but I’ll say it again here, I loved the way that the aftermath of that moment with the blind man was handled… because you know, Harry Jerkface Styles, of course…
LS: Nothing against him as a person in real life, but yeah.
Me: Yes, apologies, I just don’t know, I forget what his character is named, because nobody has names in this movie, but I’m just calling him the Harry Styles guy. So, apologies.
LS: Sorry Harry, I actually love you!!
Me: But he’s like, “Oh, that old bloke wouldn’t even look us in the eye…”
LS: The other guy could have gotten mad and been like, “Oh you’re so nasty, you don’t even know what’s going on, blah-blah-blah-blah!”
Me: Right, and the first time I saw it, I thought oh, is the other guy gonna say, “He’s blind!” or something in an indignant voice? But he doesn’t say anything. He just kind of slumps against the seat and says absolutely nothing, and then the ticking stops. Did you notice? Just at that moment.
LS: Yeah. The ticking stopped a few times in the movie.
Me: But you really feel it in that moment, because there’s absolute silence after all the loudness, as you mentioned… it’s like suddenly, there’s no noise at all, and you really feel the absence of sound… “Oh my gosh, is it over? Is it really over? Wow.” That was quite beautiful. And then, you might have caught that the Styles character is very down in the mouth, because he thinks, “Oh, we’ve let the people down, they’re gonna be spitting at us in the streets, it’s a disaster, it’s a failure, we’ve disgraced England,” etc. And then the guy is knocking on the window and holding up bottles of beer. And so, so far from being spat on in the streets, they’re getting a hero’s welcome. So that was very moving, I think, not that Harry Styles deserved a hero’s welcome.
LS: His character. We’ll just say his character.
Me: Not that Harry Styles’ character deserved a hero’s welcome…
LS: Well, I’m sure there were other soldiers as well who were kind of nasty, so maybe they didn’t deserve it either. But it’s part of the ONE army.
Me: That’s exactly the point, is that they were getting The Army back. So all kinds of men, the good men, the bad men, it was the Army. The Army is like this entity unto itself. It’s just really, really interesting. And of course, I’ve always loved that Winston Churchill speech: “We shall fight them on the beaches… we shall never surrender…” I remember when I was younger than you, I just was so captivated by that. And so to have it be read in the very, very tired, worn voice of a young British soldier, I thought was very compelling, because he’s not reading it in a super bombastic or inspirational way. He’s just reading the paper: “We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall never surrender…” and the other guy’s like, “Hmm, what, huh?” because he’s so busy grabbing beer and food, it’s like, “He’s reading one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century. No big deal.”
LS: Well, he didn’t really know it was one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century at the time. [laughing]
Me: I know, but it’s just kind of funny, you know?
And the last image of the burning Spitfire…
LS: You know, I thought the last image was all the helmets. Was the helmets before the burning Spitfire?
Me: That was before the burning Spitfire. Another really good image.
LS: Which was also kind of sad, because it’s like “All the dead soldiers!”
Me: Sad, again, to be reminded of the cost. But the burning Spitfire is a perfect note to end on, because it symbolizes the sort of glorious ruin…
LS: Right, yeah. Another good paradoxical phrase.
Me: Exactly. The epic, the beautiful disaster of this retreat. And the spirit of England is the spirit of the Spitfire pilots, is the spirit of the Little Ships. And so in the end, that kind of encapsulates everything that we’ve been saying about how it’s very deeply conscious of the cost of war, the tragedy of war, but also of what can be salvaged from war, and the undying brightness of the human spirit.
Now, one curious thing, maybe I’ll close here… Christopher Nolan’s not a Christian. He’s a materialist. He doesn’t believe in the existence of the soul, or the mind or anything like that.
LS: Well, I would say even non-Christians can appreciate the beauty of a good story of courage, you know?
Me: Well, exactly, and that’s what I find interesting, because he portrays this very compelling story of the human spirit. But he views it from [sic] a humanist lens, so it’s just about the triumph of the human spirit. And so you don’t even see men praying at all, or singing, or anything like that…
LS: Which is fine, I get a little tired of singing in movies. It’s only ruined with me if someone starts singing.
Me: Well yeah, that can definitely be true. But there’s a different scene which I’ll show you from a movie you haven’t seen called Atonement where the main character gets caught at Dunkirk. And the movie isn’t really about Dunkirk, but there’s about a 5-minute scene, and it just sort of pans around and shows you what the beach is like. It’s completely different from Nolan. And one of the little scenes it sort of drops in on as it’s walking around is a group of soldiers standing around singing a hymn. Because everyone is just sort of killing time, because the lines are all backed up, all the way up inland. And it’s a really stirring, quick moment. It’s not really dwelt on, they move past it, but you sort of see that little spark of Christendom in the middle of these circumstances. And so Nolan’s vision of Dunkirk is sort of wiped clean of any of that.
LS: Well, if you think about it, Christians are kind of in the minority. So it makes more sense in a way that it would be like… if we’re talking about the masses, large groups of people in a terrible situation, there are technically not very many people in those groups who would be saying “Hey guys, let’s pray!” Most people would be like, “We’re gonna die, we’re gonna die, we’re gonna die…”
Me: Yeah, well, obviously it wouldn’t work for every scene. But there’s definitely more of a minority now than there would have been at the time. I mean, the brief moment in the different scene, where the men are singing a hymn, feels very authentic.
LS: Right, well that movie, it sounds like it’s a Christian movie anyway. I mean it’s called Atonement…
Me: It’s not.
Me: No, it’s most definitely not a Christian movie. I won’t go into all the details of the plot, but it’s certainly not written from a Christian perspective at all. I don’t even particularly like the movie as a whole, I just really like that scene. But no, I can definitely see a bunch of Christian men bursting into a good British hymn. Not that I think hymn-singing necessarily would have fit the oeuvre…
LS: No. [laughing] No, absolutely not.
Me: It’s really not the kind of movie that Nolan was making. I just thought it’s interesting that was sort of absent. But I agree with you that he is proof positive that even non-Christian filmmakers can craft very stirring pieces of art that for those of us who are Christians… we can admire them, and we can sort of see how they point to a higher reality.
LS: Well, any movie that’s even at all humanist…
LS: …You know, any human being with half an eye can see the beauty in that.
Me: Right, and there are certain Christian circles where I think humanism is used as kind of a dirty word, almost. “Oh, so-and-so is a humanist.” And I’m just like, “I’m a humanist too. What’s wrong with being a humanist?” I think that you can’t be a Christian without being a humanist first, in a sense. That’s like step one, precisely because humans are made in the image of God. So, I sometimes think about Nolan, like “Hmmmm, man wouldn’t it be nice if he became a Christian some day. That would be pretty cool.” Because if you think about it, somebody with that kind of a platform, and that kind of an influence…
LS: And that kind of skill too, just as a director.
Me: Yeah, because he’s fantastically talented. So I just think about these things occasionally, and of course they never happen, but it’s a neat thing to think about. But I just can’t wait to see what he’s gonna do next, because I think this was just stunning. Oh, and I hope he keeps that cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema.
Me: I just like saying that name. Hoyte van Hoytema. I’ll say it again: Hoyte van Hoytema.
LS: [still giggling] All right, all right already.
Me: That Dutch guy. Great name. Came up with some fantastic shots, like you see the vertical wall of water that’s coming up.
LS: Right, there were a lot of water shots that were cool, like in some of the dogfights when the plane is going sideways, you get a sideways shot of water, it looks like it’s slanted…
Me: I know!
LS: And it’s just this wide expanse of water. And at first, you’re like, “Oh, that’s water! Wow, that’s a lot of water!”
Me: That was fantastic. And he’s the same guy who did Interstellar, which I think we should probably see at some point.
LS: I think we should. You’re hyping this pretty well. Let’s go see Interstellar now!
Me: Yeah, there’s actually not a whole lot of his movies that I really love. There are some really devoted Nolan fanboys out there who…
LS: Love everything he does, he can do nothing wrong.
Me: Basically. They will get really mad if you raise any criticism. I mean, I saw a group of reviewers [Screen Junkies] who saw Dunkirk, and… after listing all the things that they liked about it, they were like, “Okay. But. We didn’t like everything about it. Hold on, stop the presses! It was a beautiful movie, we just have some criticisms!” And they were almost, like, afraid of what people might say in the comments section, so they were trying to preempt the backlash that they were gonna get.
LS: I’m never afraid of criticizing things.
Me: Me neither. I just completely ignore anything like that. But I’m sure that Nolan himself would not appreciate that, you know, he would not want his fans to act that way.
LS: To raise an altar to him, in a way, like “Oh, I’m so sorry I’m criticizing your movie!”
Me: No, not at all, I think that’s absolutely ridiculous. But, I do think he has a really original creative mind.
Me: Do you think that you want to see Dunkirk again, now that you understand the timelines, do you think you’d appreciate it more on a second viewing?
LS: I think the first viewing is good for me, because if I saw it the second time, some of my love for the movie might wear off a little bit. Because seeing it on the first viewing, it impacts you.
Me: That’s a good point. And you know what happens to the main… if you can call them characters, what happens to them now. But you know, you might see connections and understand how things fit together even better. That’s a great twist… and it’s the sort of thing only Nolan would have tried or come up with. And so I do appreciate his artistry and his originality. I think I’m more of a fan of him now than I was before, and I’m really looking forward to what he does next.
Okay, any closing thoughts?
LS: I’m blanking on any specific thing that could be labeled as a closing thought, but I think it was great.
Me: Would you recommend people see it in theaters?
LS: Yeah, I think it was very effective, because then the loudness is made extra loud. But I would say watch the young kids, maybe don’t take them.
Me: Yeah, I would agree. Even though it’s deliberately PG-13, like we discussed, it does not feel watered down…
LS: Abridged, children’s version.
Me: Not at all. It doesn’t really pull punches on violence, even though it’s not gory per se. I would agree, and I would say, we did not see it in IMAX 70mm, which everyone is saying is The Way to see it.
LS: It seemed very large still!
Me: Right, and so what I’ve read is that there was some more material on the top and the bottom that was shot, that was cropped out on the size of the screen that we saw. So there’s a little bit of the film that we’ll never get to see.
LS: Well, it would have been cropped out even more if we hadn’t seen it in IMAX.
Me: Yeah, that’s true. But technically, if you had done a commute, you know, 2-2.5 hours away…
LS: That sounds a little extreme.
Me: … to an IMAX 70mm theater, then you could see it The Way Christopher Nolan Intended. So this has provoked some funny comments, like you know, “If you can’t see Dunkirk projected onto the side of the full moon, might as well not see it at all.” “If you can’t see it in Christopher Nolan’s private home theater with him whispering commentary in your ear, don’t bother.”
Me: So there’s a certain point at which it just gets a little ridiculous. And so I would say to readers, even if you don’t have an IMAX 70mm theater, seeing it in some form of IMAX or other is still…
LS: A good choice.
Me: Definitely worth the experience. All right, that concludes our conversation!