Christopher Nolan’s first historical film contains his usual tricks, but with grand ambition and immaculate detail.
We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.
Late May, 1940. The Battle of France has ended in disaster, and hundreds of thousands of British troops (along with Belgians, Canadians, and the native French) have been pushed to the sea by the encroaching German army. On a clear day they can just about see home on the other side of the English Channel, but the water is far too shallow for their navy to get close, and evacuation proceeds at a snail’s pace. And once the Luftwaffe start their bombing runs, destroying numerous ships and turning these once-disciplined soldiers into jittery zombies, high command will only risk one ship at a time. All the men can do is wait, and duck, and bury their dead, and hope that maybe they can get on the next boat, and that it won’t sink.
It would be another 18 months before the United States roused itself out of its “America First” stupor, but had events unfolded differently, had these men been annihilated on the sand leaving Britain without the strength to defend itself, the war would have essentially ended right here. Imagine how different our world would be without the courage of the civilians who came to the rescue in Operation Dynamo, with their fishing boats and pleasure yachts, braving the surf and the bombs to help carry out the largest military evacuation in history.
For most directors, Dunkirk would be a straightforward war film about heroic perseverance, certainly including some likable stock characters, a rousing score, and a feeling of history under glass. Christopher Nolan is not most directors. Forget stock characters — here there aren’t any “characters” at all, just mud-streaked faces, mostly anonymous, scrambling for survival. The film is so absorbing, especially on an IMAX screen, that it doesn’t take long before you’re right there with them, and the sound of aircraft has you instinctively ducking, too.
Never stopping for breath in its 106 minutes, Dunkirk toggles between three mini-stories unfolding across three different time streams. “The Mole” (like for a breakwater, not for espionage) covers the final week on the beach, and is focused primarily on the babyfaced Fionn Whitehead as “Tommy,” first introduced fleeing German snipers in the city proper before being pressed into loading the wounded onto the latest doomed vessel. He and a couple of mates (including, in the week’s less-distracting pop star appearance, Harry Styles) try every route they can to escape the cursed beach, but the tide always brings them back — it’s the island from LOST, if the Others had Stukas. Meanwhile, officers played by Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy stand solemnly on the pier, wondering if help will come, and what might be the best way to die if it doesn’t.
The second thread, “The Sea,” unfolds over a single day and features the great Mark Rylance as one of the civilian sailors. He’s accompanied by his son and his son’s best friend; the trio think nothing of risking their lives to play a small part in Dynamo. Their first pickup is Cilian Murphy, the lone survivor of a U-Boat attack, and who has no interest in returning to France for the others. The drama that unfolds is a little pat compared to the rest of the film, but Rylance is as superb as ever, and Tom Glynn-Garney (like Whitehead, in his feature debut) is a young actor worth keeping an eye on.
Both “The Mole” and “The Sea” intersect in surprising ways with the third story, “The Air,” which covers the span of a mere hour. Aside from providing some of the film’s most jaw-dropping widescreen imagery, it’s a remarkable solo performance from Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot, who quickly loses his long-wave radio, his fuel gauge, and his wingmen, but resolves to see his mission through to the end. With his face covered by an oxygen mask (not unlike his last Nolan appearance), Hardy conveys an entire film’s worth of emotion with just his eyes. Dunkirk is full of heroic characters, some for the decisions they make, others for simply surviving. But Hardy is the most tangible link to the great war films of the 50s and 60s: a quietly confident movie star doing what he does best.
Nolan has made something to be truly experienced — or, as he calls it, “virtual reality without the goggles” — that redefines what large-scale filmmaking can be. Since he’s working from history, a story we already know the ending to, he’s freed himself from the usual genre conventions. Dunkirk is a mirror to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, cousins on the Realism-Formalism scale: if the latter was visual poetry, philosophical and dreamlike, Dunkirk is nightmarish prose. It pounds you into submission — not to punish you, like a Transformers movie, but to really put you in the muck, and the waterlogged boots of these desperate men who can’t fight, and can’t flee. (One simply takes off his helmet and walks into the ocean.) There are no monologues about home; no one pauses to gaze at a faded picture of their wife or girlfriend; there is only the here and now, and it sucks. Don’t know any of these guys’ names? After the constant shelling, you probably wouldn’t remember yours, either.
Dunkirk’s starkly beautiful images (from Hoyt van Hoytema, sure to get his first Oscar nomination) are worth seeing on the largest screen available. The detail is exquisite, and the film uses color like Nolan never has before. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is far more impressionistic. Hans Zimmer has delivered an “anti-score,” howling and dissonant and omnipresent, and sure to be the film’s most polarizing element. Zimmer’s lead instrument is the tick-tick-tick of a stopwatch, and his electronic strum und drang is simultaneously perfect for the chaos on screen, and jarring as hell. If the goal is to add to audience discomfort, it works, saving the only thing that might resemble melody for the third-act shot of incoming watercraft. Again, nothing about the film is traditional.
Long perceived as a chilly filmmaker (and not always unfairly), Nolan’s work reliably engages on an intellectual level, but not always on an emotional one. His protagonists are obsessives who no longer can tell you why they do what they do; they simply don’t know anything else. In his best, non-Batman work, there’s a puzzle to be solved. The reverse-engineered Memento was a series of trap doors that left you just as dazed as Guy Pearce’s Leonard; The Prestige was both about a magic trick and itself a magic trick, a secret hidden in plain sight; Inception (my favorite Nolan, and I’ll still say his best) turned brains to putty with its nesting-doll structure, while standing as a fascinating metaphor about the art of filmmaking itself. The guy simply doesn’t play anything straight. It’s not in his nature.
All of those films — and Interstellar, which I loved more than most — have another thing in common, and it’s Nolan’s signature: the fracturing of time. Our perception of the fourth dimension is the meta-theme that drives all of his original work. He’s compressed it, dilated it, shuttled us backwards and forwards. The director has never met a narrative he couldn’t scramble, or an audience he couldn’t disorient. His films come by their “blockbusters for brainiacs” description honestly. But cross-cutting, as every director knows, is a dangerous game. You always risk deflating dramatic tension every time you turn the viewer’s attention somewhere else; the trick is knowing just when to do it, and how often. For every Return of the King, there’s a Phantom Menace.
With Inception, the editing was part of the fun, and I’d argue Lee Smith gave a master class in it. By contrast, Dunkirk begins already filled with dread and simply ratchets it up, steadily increasing the rate of the scene changes as the film progresses. The story strands are meant to weave together at the film’s climax, and it largely works, but I question its necessity. Eventually, someone will re-edit the film into chronological order, and we’ll see if it plays any better. It may not, but it’s possible Nolan structured Dunkirk this way because he could, and because it was different, and not because it was the best way to tell his story. Like all of his work, however, it’ll take multiple viewings to fully appreciate, and my tune on this point may change.
Nevertheless, despite the timey-wimey gimmickry and Zimmer’s Ode to An Elephant Falling Down a Staircase, the production is held aloft by its unimpeachable realism and in-camera elbow grease. No one can deny the level of craft on display. This is what an auteur like Nolan does when he has a blank check from a studio: have hundreds of extras stand in the frigid surf for hours at a time, feature painstakingly authentic recreations of ships and aircraft, and fire enough controlled detonations to subdue a small country. I was left goggle-eyed both by the spectacle, and by Nolan’s supreme confidence in his directorial powers, marshaling his own army in the service of a singular vision.
Most compellingly, he never loses sight of the broader context: for the survivors of Dunkirk, their war was just beginning. It’s the best ending to a Christopher Nolan film because it doesn’t rely on a surprise twist or the fate of a comic book hero; these men don’t know what we know, and there are still greater sacrifices to be made before things get put right. The English snatched a moral victory from the jaws of doom, but had to get up the next day and face what came next. There would be equal heroism in simply carrying on. 77 years later, Dunkirk’s message rings loud and clear.