Last weekend I finally took myself out to see the latest feat in cerebral blockbusterin’, noted clockwork person Christopher Nolan’s peculiar passion project, Dunkirk. In 70mm, because that felt part of the point of this one.
I could probably start half a dozen sentences with “What you need to know about Chris Nolan.” What you need to know about Chris Nolan is that his true brilliance might be how he has positioned himself as one of Hollywood’s few sure-bet original filmmakers, whom Warner Bros. will let make whatever strange, half-silent war film he wants thanks to his perfect history of delivering highly successful movies that did not stray one penny over budget. What you need to know about Chris Nolan is that once while location scouting in Iceland he took off his shoes and silently walked out into a freezing glacier lagoon to check the feasibility of a shot. What you need to know about Chris Nolan is that he didn’t realize so many people besides his daughter knew who Harry Styles was. What you need to know about Chris Nolan is that the characters’ initials in Inception literally spell out “DREAMS.”
What you need to know about Chris Nolan is that he’s a far more fascinating and specific and terribly uncool person than his vast popularity gives him credit for, and I could talk about this weirdo all day.
If anyone’s going to listen to me it would probably be Tom Hardy, who, as is so often his way, gets it. Tom Hardy’s been out here getting Chris Nolan since Inception, which is something Nolan recognizes and values and so will continue to cast him in every one of his projects that he can. He does this with a number of emotionally intelligent actors, who value him in turn for the combination of opportunity and responsibility he offers them. Because Nolan is indeed a very smart man, and he knows what he doesn’t know, which is human beings.
And this is why Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s the one where he finally married his narrative with his deal. Just as Wes Anderson eventually made a movie with his aesthetic philosophy presented as philosophy, Nolan has at last made a movie that fully embraces being about a specific experience, not specific people. He so completely left the characters up to his actors that in many cases they’re never even called by name. I don’t think this feature was really a point so much that it just wasn’t important, which is different.
Dunkirk is Nolan’s truest work, for it’s the one where he is the most honest about what he wants to do, which is to make a concept piece about the experience of time in trauma and the deception of distances and the hopeless horror of trying not to get murdered for as long as possible. And to shoot it in 70mm, so that he can douse us with the whole grand harrowing ordeal of it, until you stumble back out of the theater feeling like you’ve just Gone Through Something.
Anyway. I like this movie very much. I don’t believe I ever want to watch it again, but what can I say, at the time there’s this element of kind of enjoying the experience of being masterfully upset by something. Because Dunkirk will go down as a master work of filmmaking, and it should. My god are these sequences gorgeously constructed, the thought that went in to every technical choice as clear and impressive as Hardy’s pilot steadily calculating how much fuel he has left.
But perhaps most of all, I loved the feeling that I was watching a singular object. This stressful, beautiful, mathematical war movie, intimate but unsentimental, and where the most personal thing about it is its director. What you need to know about Chris Nolan, is that the ticking clock threaded through Dunkirk’s score is a recording of his own pocket watch.