When War Films Make You Feel Things: The Dunkirk Experience

Just recently, I had the chance to watch Dunkirk in the cinemas alone.

Going to the cinemas alone will always be “therapeutic” for me, no matter what genre. My experiences include The Fault In Our Stars, Jurassic World, Me Before You, etc. And then this. I say “therapeutic” because when you’re watching alone, you feel like it’s just you, and the screen is your center in that moment. Never mind if it’s a full house, you’re surrounded by strangers anyway. You will notice and feel things that the film actually wants you to experience, that you may not get to experience had you went with people.

And so far, Dunkirk may just be my favorite experience yet.

Directed by Christopher Nolan, I had great expectations for this film. All I knew before I entered the cinema was that it was about World War II. And that topic is a personal favorite. You combine that with Nolan, you’ve got yourself a happy cinephile right here.

Of course, when you know you’re about to watch a war film, you’ve got to have your disposition and guts prepared. When I entered the cinema, I probably had a mental “war face” on. I was excited and prepared for all the gore, guns, explosions, and survival.

But it did not prepare me for the ending.

Dunkirk was engrossing from the first second. I was glued and captivated by everything that was happening. It’s not even your typical plot line of having a progression of events; following a protagonist move from one place to another country in the first twenty minutes to another problem to more villains and alliances, until it all mashes up together in a final showdown. That’s not how this movie is.

Instead, the entire story takes place in one big setting where many things are happening all at once. At some point, you may even feel a sense of longing for another scenery because you’ve been seeing just one place for the last thirty minutes. It’s not that you feel bored, you just feel stationary to where the characters are. And I think that sense of isolation is a really nice touch to depict and make the audience feel that you’re trapped as well, just like all these soldiers who are clawing their way out of Dunkirk all the while trying to survive.

The ending is another story. The last ten minutes had me in awe and I was crying. I could literally feel the film speaking to me.

*spoilers ahead*

Why I cried harder was because of that part when Tommy was reading a newspaper, reading what is Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight On The Beaches” speech, at the same time narrating the ending of this movie, to which these were the words that struck me:

We must expect another blow to be struck almost immediately…we shall go on to the end…we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air…we shall never surrender.

Those words are just simple, but when you see how Nolan complements it visually, and then you also put into the mix the scoring of Hans Zimmer in the background, well WOW.

The film ends on a hopeful note, not a happy note. It doesn’t end at that part of our history when WWII is over and conflicts are resolved. And that minor detail is what drove my emotions to absorb the same feeling of keeping your head up high, whilst knowing that the war isn’t over. It spoke to me because we face the same things every single day–or at least I see myself in the characters’ shoes.

Putting it in our perspective, we know our story isn’t over yet. We can be content today, but life goes on and there are more battles we need to overcome. Sometimes we feel like we got to where we are because we just survived, not because we fought a great fight. And that may make us feel like we didn’t do enough or we weren’t at our best. But the film exactly depicts that the littlest battles you face alone are victorious in itself.

When I walked into the cinema, I was ready for battle, I had my mental “war face” on. When I walked out of the cinema, I was vulnerable. That’s how beautiful this film is.

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