Editor’s Note: Dunkirk opens in wide theatrical release today, July 21, 2017.
With little introduction, Christopher Nolan’s (Interstellar, The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, The Prestige) latest film, Dunkirk, a war film that’s more a survival horror film than a conventional war film, drops moviegoers into the last week of the British Expeditionary Force’s stand on the shores of France in 1940. With France defeated by the advancing German army and British, French, Belgian, and Canadian troops driven back into a 50-kilometer area bordered by the town of Dunkirk on one side and the English Channel on the other, the war looked all but lost for the 400,000 men stranded on the wrong side of the British Isles with little hope of rescue. Most escaped, of course, to fight (and possibly die) again, thanks to a combination of the British Navy and small boat owners who willingly ventured into submarine-infested waters to bring the Allied troops back to England. Sidestepping the usual conventions and tropes associated with the war genre, however, Nolan delivers an admirably lean, efficient, immersive moviegoing experience with thematic heft and career-best action scenes.
Dunkirk unfolds like a two-hour action/disaster film, with momentary breaks to allow moviegoers to catch their breath before plunging them right back into the next action scene, the next set piece.
Leanness and efficiency, however, don’t mean that Nolan’s preference for non-linear storytelling has been pushed aside in Dunkirk. It hasn’t. Dividing Dunkirk along three temporal axes (land, sea, and air), Nolan follows several soldiers, more boys than men, including Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a British private desperate to get home, and British officer, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), in charge of the evacuation, a pleasure boat captain, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and his son’s high-school friend, George (Barry Keoghan), as they join the effort to rescue the stranded men on the other side of English Channel, and two RAF pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy, his face once again hidden by a voice-muffling mask), Collins (Jack Lowden), as they try to buy time for the ships escaping from Dunkirk from the bombs and machine guns of the Luftwaffe. Time is the key storytelling element here: Tommy’s story unfolds over one week, Dawson’s over a single day, and Farrier and Collins’ over a single hour. Their stories eventually converge and diverge, often from different, disparate angles, often illuminating or upending our understanding of a character or an event.
For Tommy, the sole survivor of a group of young men mowed down in the first scene by unseen Germans, getting home safely occupies every step he takes, every breath he takes, every move he takes. Nolan’s oeuvre has almost always been driven by dialogue and exposition, by subtext turned into text, but here, the opposite holds: Despite Tommy’s nominal status as one of the protagonists, he barely speaks, but his haunted, anguished face says everything that needs to be said or conveyed. The war has driven Tommy and his fellow soldiers to a near primitive, near non-verbal state where the price of inattention or a temporary loss of focus can lead to a premature death. Nolan wrote Dawson, Farrier, and Collins in a more traditional manner, but they’re just as backstory-free as Tommy and the other soldiers who join him on the beach. They’re defined solely by who they are (a pleasure-boat captain, pilots) and what they do (noble acts of bravery in service to an unconditionally just cause). As such, they take on near mythic proportions over the course of Dunkirk’s relatively brief, but no less exhilarating or nerve-racking running time.
Sidestepping the usual conventions and tropes associated with the war genre, however, Nolan delivers an admirably lean, efficient, immersive moviegoing experience with thematic heft and career-best action scenes.
With little time – or to be fair, interest – in character or character building, Dunkirk unfolds like a two-hour action/disaster film, with momentary breaks to allow moviegoers to catch their breath before plunging them right back into the next action scene, the next set piece. One character attempts to join a departing medical ship by carrying a wounded man on a stretcher with another soldier. Quickly rebuffed, he retreats to the nearby pier to witness the ship’s sinking seconds later. His proximity to the sinking allows him to save a few men. Almost immediately, however, he’s back in survival mode, looking for the next opportunity to escape Dunkirk. For every step forward, he takes three steps back, often n the cold, frigid waters of the English Channel. Points, as expected, for the indomitability thing. In another, interwoven story, a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy), rescued by Dawson, attempts to convince Dawson to turn around. Dawson gives the closest thing to an “Up with Britain,” myth-making speech. He’s convincing, if not to the soldier, then to the audience, the real target of Dawson’s speech.
Aided by his Interstellar collaborator, cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema (Spectre, Her), and his longtime musical partner, Hans Zimmer (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Man of Steel, Inception, The Dark Knight trilogy), Nolan delivers a series of well-choreographed, viscerally charged, epic-scaled spectacle with metronymic, rigorous precision. The set pieces are clearer, more coherent, and better edited than most of Nolan’s previous efforts (action scenes often have been the weak spot in Nolan’s filmmaking toolkit). The relative simplicity of Dunkirk’s narrative certainly helps, but Nolan’s decision to use a non-linear structure could have fatally undermined Dunkirk. Nolan’s growth as a filmmaker, in part predicated on an apparent willingness to listen to criticism and course correct as needed, made that outcome highly unlikely. That alone wasn’t a guarantee of Dunkirk’s aesthetic or narrative quality, but it made it more likely. Luckily for moviegoer, Nolan’s strengths and none of his weaknesses are on fully display in Dunkirk.
Aided by his Interstellar collaborator, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, and his longtime musical partner Hans Zimmer, director Christopher Nolan delivers a series of well-choreographed, viscerally charged, epic-scaled spectacle in Dunkirk.