The script for Dunkirk must read something like this:
Page 1. The Battle of Dunkirk. / FADE TO BLACK / The End
There is that much action and that little dialogue. And most of the dialogue is in any case unintelligible due to accent and vernacular. Luckily, the story of Dunkirk is not one of words but deeds.
The Director, Christopher Nolan, has great respect for the power of intersecting story structure. As in Memento, where he tells a story in reverse, Dunkirk follows three unique but intersecting strands. Unlike Moonlight where the three chapters come in chronological order, Dunkirk’s structure follows its own order. The acts, as explained through titles at the start include the sea, whose day long story is the anchor the others jockey towards and past. The story of the beach takes a week to unfold and the story of the air, one hour, or the amount of time that it takes for the gas tank of a Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane to run dry. Dunkirk is revealed in the cross cutting of these stories. As V.I. Pudovkin wrote in his 1930s seminal anthology Film Technique and Film Acting, it is through the control of time and space in editing that filmmaking is elevated into art. And that is true here. I can’t think of a war epic since Battleship Potemkin that has used editing in such a groundbreaking way. And in terms of the cinematography of Hoytema, the achievement is on par with Apocalypse Now and will no doubt be a front runner for the Academy Award next March.
Which brings me to the format of this film, IMAX 70mm. This is over twice the size of a typical 35mm film. In IMAX 70mm, the aspect ratio, or relationship between the vertical and horizontal, creates a large square frame. You may have seen an IMAX movie at a science museum. In the USA, the film is being screened in IMAX 70mm, the way Nolan shot it, in under 100 theaters. The nearest IMAX 70mm screening of Dunkirk to the L & D is at the Minnesota Zoo, four and a half hours away. Weirdly, Alabama, not exactly known as a film mecca, actually has two theaters showing Dunkirk in IMAX 70mm. Here is a link to all the IMAX 70mm theaters screening Dunkirk: Dunkirk in IMAX 70mm. The nearest cinema from the L &D screening the 70mm print is outside of Milwaukee in a place called Waukesha, about an hour and forty five minutes away. Here is a link to all the theaters showing the film in 70mm: Dunkirk in 70mm.
So what this means is that I watched Dunkirk in a cropped aspect ratio. The movie itself did not fill up the entire screen, neither sides nor top or bottom. Not knowing anything about the production of Dunkirk going into it, this definitely confused me. Back in the day, this issue would have been corrected by having a curtain come in from the sides and top and bottom to cover the blank parts of the screen. But theaters in the multiplex era are spartan affairs in this regard and the thinking is that ninety-nine percent of the films will have no issues since it is only Tarantino and Nolan who shoot features, like the The Hateful Eight, in 70mm. I found the blank screen distracting and it bugged me. An IMAX film camera goes for a million dollars. The quality of the resolution is off the charts. So it’s kind of a bummer not to be able to see Dunkirk in its full glory in terms of projection quality and aspect ratio. However, if you are planning on waiting to watch this at home on Blu-ray, don’t bother, you won’t get it. Unless I suppose you are sitting about a foot away from your flat screen.
What to say about the rest of this film. There are flawless effects, brilliant combat scenes including the aerial dogfights, the acting is seamless and engaging. And I think its ultimate victory is something D said, it’s claustrophobic. For an IMAX formatted movie to be at once epic in its scope and claustrophobic in its atmosphere is a testament to the greatness of everyone who worked on this picture and the vision of Christopher Nolan.