“Survival is victory.”
Christopher Nolan is what many would call our modern day auteur blockbuster director — an often contradictory title if there ever was one. Though there are others: Peter Jackson (has he disappeared?) and James Cameron (busy becoming one with Pandora). Still, Nolan is different. His films often feel self-important and bloated. With Dunkirk, the heavy-handedness often linked to his work finds its perfect match. The often expositional dialogue and swelling, overbearing score is the ideal companion to this war epic.
It is without a doubt his most accessible work — blending in his jumbling narrative style with a traditional, though unrelenting plot. Still, in places it is surprisingly intimate, something most Nolan fans likely haven’t seen since Memento (2000) well over a decade ago. This is paired with a tone of total chaos and terror that inevitably falls to sentiment.
In our time, remembering the past doesn’t seem as commonplace. We shed our eyes and ears to the horrors of our recent ancestors much the same way we beckon away the news of the latest Game of Thrones spoilers. There are some that do not wish to forget the past so easily. Nolan’s Dunkirk is a war film, one that is unrelenting, one that reminds us of the evils of humanity, but also the overwhelming urge to survive. You can try and cover your eyes and ears but you will hear it all regardless, and whatever you can imagine in your mind’s eye can’t compare.
The film takes place in 1940 amidst World War II. At this point the combat has been raging for a couple years and the Allied forces are in retreat. We come to our characters as they are stranded, attempting to evacuate Dunkirk, a port town on the border of France off the English Channel.
As the film unfolds we watch Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) who have latched onto each other at the beach, though their communication has been completely wordless. They carry a man with a stretcher through thousands of troops attempting to find a place on a ship to sail and be rescued. They don’t, but even if they had there is no assurance of safety. Whether on the beach or in the water the troops are fish in a barrel being sunk and shot at by planes, U-boats and the surrounding enemy fire — all unseen and the more frightening for it.
Hope comes from the air and the sea. Two Royal Air Force planes piloted by Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy) pick off enemy planes as best they can. In the ocean we follow Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and local neighbor-boy George (Barry Keoghan), as they head towards Dunkirk from a local civilian town. They, along with other navy-occupied civilian fishing boats, travel across the channel to help evacuate the nearly 400,000 English soldiers. Omitted in the frenzy is the rain of blood and limb-flying explosions. In the way Nolan chooses to not show the Germans — he effectively has made one of the least gory horror films ever. Fair warning if, like me, you are claustrophobic prepare yourself now. If, unlike me, you have had no issues with water — that will change, I assure you.
It wouldn’t be a Nolan film without the exploration of perspective and a non-linear narrative. In Dunkirk it is explored through three separate chunks titled: “The Mole”, “The Sea” and “the Air.” They are matched, sequentially, with Tommy’s tale on the beach; Mr. Dawson in the sea; and Farrier in the sky. Of course these narratives are split and spliced together and eventually coagulate into a whole but what is unique about it — and what is unique about all of Nolan’s work — is how he uses it to explore the plasticity of time.
To say Christopher Nolan has a fascination with time and perspective would be an understatement. The time on the beach takes place in a week, the sea a day and the air an hour though they are cut together as if happening simultaneously so that it’s as if it’s taking place on land, at sea and in the air, all at once. Like Nolan’s other films I’ve heard audiences murmuring of confusion. Like his other features, I don’t see the confusion, and too many people go into his pictures attempting to put too much thought into his style as opposed to letting him do all the work. Full of small moments that surprise. Subtlety and simple explanation. It’s ultimately about contribution of whatever time and effort you can. As is demonstrated, the air force only needs an hour to make a difference — the sailor a day.
What the manipulation and control of time and perspective does here is emphasize the film’s themes of isolation, duty, sacrifice and fear. All of this would be less impactful without the carnal obsession with a ticking clock. These men are countless across a stretch of land but as their numbers dwindle and their men spread their isolation seems almost more suppressing. There’s no hint at home for these men other than the shadowy figure they swear they can almost see across the English channel. They’re anonymous and in so doing make them more interesting. They could be anyone — bad or good — the point is they’re worth saving.
The film’s performances and cast provide the connection to the film. Our three main men on the beach — Tommy, Gibson and eventually Alex (Harry Styles) — are all anonymous. They have names but they have no backstory and they don’t need one. They even look too similar — a lot of slick, wet black hair and sharp cheekbones.
If Nolan can make Harry Styles appear the anonymous equal to newcomer like Fionn Whitehead it’s not surprising he’s able to ground even the more familiar film faces. As we go to and from the suffering of these three young men we come to some welcome and impassioned side characters. Most are character actors — James D’Arcy and Mark Rylance — but even bigger names like Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh and Cillian Murphy are still able to ground the film. Within these characters and performances the stories intertwine and the heart at the center of each of them coagulate into a sliver of hope.
Passed all the sound and fury is Nolan’s most beautiful film to date, despite the usual cold color pallette. Hoyte Van Hoytema who shot Nolan’s last film, Interstellar (2014), as well as Spectre (2015) and Her (2013), is at his best here. He gives the landscapes a blue hue as if the light is actually draining from the film — perfectly matching the tumultuous ebb of the crashing waves and the potential dawning of tomorrow.
Together Nolan and Hoytema bring an Inventive use of frame and narrative despite the challenge of the vast beach and nowhere near enough extras. They do their best with the six thousand or so they have and are able to make the soldiers stand out when they need them to and feel like ants in the sand the next minute — the constant contrast of their self-identified humanity and the lack thereof from the enemies in the clouds.
In the clouds is where the true magic happens. The aerial footage Hoytema captures is more mesmerizing than has ever been filmed. Documentary-like in it’s realism — it could be a simulation or VR. Howard Hawks would be proud. Still, even on the ground Hoytema camerawork is also fluid and aids the story and keeps you from getting lost and at the same time reinforces the connection between the three spaces of time. He creates beauty of the frothy foam on the beach ebbing and flowing with the waves as gorgeous as a oil fire on in the water. Tragedy meets the mundane, but in the end we’re just reminded of the horror, violence and isolation.
Hans Zimmer score is happily accepted here. His usual bone-chilling and ear-deafening wails actually aid the film this time around. The frenzy of violins will try its best to leave your ears ringing, your hands shaking and your heart with an irregular beat. Many have complained the drone of Zimmer’s score and the overall sound design drowns out the little dialogue there is — at least in my theatre I could hear what they were saying quite clearly. It was more my difficulty in understanding the different dialects that proved the challenge. It definitely could benefit for subtitles but even then this is a film drenched in chaos in a war zone where people can’t hear each other. It fits.
Dunkirk is so expertly made that the onslaught of sensory input never feels like a punishment. It’s an experience — a terrifying one — but one that enables empathy and understanding. In that respect it is not an empty spectacle. The film is structurally ambitions but not obnoxiously so. It is perfectly directed and perfectly edited.
With Dunkirk, Nolan is able to show that the things that seem unimportant are important — every person means something and can contribute. Everything that starts from the smallest brick can build into something magical–only for Nolan it’s always a single puzzle piece that must come together into a grandiose picture.
The film is, in its finished form, a reminder of what war costs, takes and gives us: horror. The ignorant are doomed to repeat it. Here we remain — stranded only with each other. As an audience we are just as vulnerable to the rush of the tides and the onslaught of bombs. We sit, tense with terror, as if we will go out of this experience with our own trauma. Such is the power of time, of war and of Dunkirk.