Dunkirk is the first film Christopher Nolan has made that feels bigger than the director’s preoccupations and obsessions. There is something ironically liberating about this sprawling yet frequently claustrophobic war movie about soldiers trapped by the sea, crowded in long queues on a great concrete and wooden jetty waiting for ships, or hunkered in the bellies of destroyers, all awaiting the bullets or bombs that could rain down at any moment.
What is liberating is that the stakes and the difficulties are clear and the goal and burden of survival is shared by soldiers and civilians alike. The tangle of expedient or necessary lies under which characters in Nolan’s stories so often labor — skewing their perceptions of reality, meaning and even their own actions, pitting characters as much against themselves as against one another — is basically absent here.
The protagonist of Memento needs the lie he tells himself to construct heroic meaning amid crushing tragedy. The conspirators in Inception want their mark to find meaning in a lie he wrongly believes to be his own idea. The Prestige depicts characters finding meaning in a self-created deception imposed on everyone around them, even when it destroys their own lives. The Dark Knight culminates in the notion that the people of Gotham need a noble lie to give them hope.
If the wisdom of that last conceit was later cross-examined by The Dark Knight Rises, by the trilogy’s end the question whether ordinary people are capable in truth of rising to the challenge of saving themselves and each other still had no real answer.
Even when The Dark Knight Rises dropped hints of a popular uprising, Nolan seemed unable to pull it off. His latest, Interstellar, was equally pessimistic about the hoi polloi coming together to save the Earth; instead, mankind’s hopes rest on elite scientists solving the equations to evacuate the planet.
Is this partly why, of all the war stories he might have told, Nolan was drawn to the story of a battle whose very name became a catchphrase — “Dunkirk spirit” — for can-do solidarity and heroism uniting ordinary people responding to a shared crisis? Did he find in this renowned chapter of history something his fictional stories strained toward but couldn’t realize?
Whatever the case, Dunkirk plays in a way not only as Nolan’s best film, but as a kind of an antithesis, even an antidote, to all the others. The notion of Dunkirk spirit arose largely because of the celebrated role of amateur sailors risking their lives serving alongside military forces in a makeshift flotilla of small ships — merchant marine vessels, fishing boats, pleasure craft and more — who sailed between England and Dunkirk to help pull off a seemingly miraculous evacuation of over 330,000 stranded troops before the Nazis closed in for the kill.
This spirit is embodied in the film above all in the character played by Mark Rylance, a middle-aged civilian named Dawson with a wooden motor yacht called the Moonstone who sets out for Dunkirk with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a young friend named George (Barry Keoghan).
Rylance plays Dawson with a low-key, matter-of-fact sense of duty and civic virtue that feels like the film’s most authentic period detail, embodying unlost Lost Generation steadiness into a second world war. He’s a man who finds poetry in the sound of a Spitfire engine and prose in turning the bow of a pleasure ship toward ground zero of what’s left of the battle for France. Urged to return home by a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) plucked from the stern of a torpedoed ship, Dawson says simply, “There won’t be any home if we allow a slaughter across the Channel.”
But Dawson is only a small part of a portrait of a larger operation in the most widespread and complicated war in history. The scale of the drama, the breadth of the canvas, both restrains Nolan and frees him.
Like his characters, who are barely characters at all in the sense that who they are is much less important than what they do, Nolan’s talents are in the service of something greater than himself. While he tells the story very much his way, for almost the first time it’s not his own story that he tells.
Dawson is one of a trio of leading figures in three overlapping threads playing out in different time frames or rates of compression, like the layered dreams of Inception. Early titles establish the three settings and time frames: We spend one hour in the air with RAF Spitfire pilots led by Tom Hardy’s ace Farrier; one day on the sea with Dawson on the Moonstone and other military vessels; and one week at “the Mole,” that jetty on the beach where hundreds of thousands of soldiers wait and hope for rescue — among them a British private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who bands together with two fellow survivors (Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles).
These three sequences are edited to give each approximately equal weight. You could almost say that every second we spend in the air with Farrier is roughly comparable to a minute of Dawson’s day at sea and about a half-hour of Tommy’s week on the beach.
Within this controlled, artificial triptych structure, Nolan orchestrates a perfect storm of harrowing battle chaos in myriad if not all forms. We never see the ring of German tanks and artillery hemming in the Allied forces at Dunkirk, but there are firefights and sandbag blockades in the streets of Dunkirk, fighter planes harrying soldiers on the beach, destroyers crippled by U-boat torpedoes, and dogfighting Spitfires and Messerschmitts peppering each other with machine-gun fire.
At the same time, it’s far from a constant barrage of action and mayhem. Tension, silence and simply waiting are part of all the movie’s narrative threads.
Notably, the story threads unfold in isolation for most of the film; the rattled soldiers on the Mole don’t know about the flotilla of small ships sailing to their rescue, nor do they understand the absence of RAF support on the beach is partly due to the challenge of protecting vessels of soldiers who have already been evacuated. What they do understand is that London had given up hope of rescuing the vast majority of the troops at Dunkirk.
Dutch-Swedish cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar, Spectre), shooting in 65mm (with about 75% of the film shot on IMAX film), creates astonishingly lucid, immersive environments of sky, sea and sand. The dogfighting footage in particular captures such sweeping images of sumptuous clouds in endless blue that each angry burst of gunfire seems like a desecration. (Yes, by all means see it in 70mm IMAX film projection if you possibly can.)
Hardy, again creating a compelling character largely without the lower half of his face or much intelligible dialogue, gives a controlled performance that’s all businesslike grace under fire. His character is the most traditionally heroic, and his aerial gallantry builds to one of the most stunning feats in any war movie I’ve seen — and it’s not even his last great moment.
Other than the images, my favorite bits of Dunkirk are some of the more dated character moments. Startled by the shell-shocked soldier’s insistence on returning home, Dawson’s son Peter asks his father if the man is a coward, and Dawson explains that he’s not himself and may never be again. Later comes a tragic moment in which Peter tells the shattered soldier a merciful lie, but an inconsequential one, not a Nolanesque necessary lie.
If Dunkirk transcends Nolan’s obsessions, it doesn’t escape all his blind spots. Religion is basically nonexistent in Nolan’s films, but it shouldn’t have been left out of this story.
Unwonted religious inflections color the opening titles: Anticipating the language of Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, which is given a strikingly muted reading at the denouement, we’re told from the outset that the soldiers at Dunkirk are waiting for “deliverance” and even for “a miracle.”
Nolan is often considered a materialist, and might see nothing miraculous in the remarkably favorable maritime conditions favoring the evacuation operation (including unusually prolonged cloud cover hampering aerial operations and oddly moderate seas in the typically choppy Channel — unusual enough that for some scenes the filmmakers had to mix up their location shooting at Dunkirk with footage shot at a lake in the Netherlands).
People at the time, though, saw Providence at work in the weather. At any rate, where there are desperate men in large numbers, there is prayer, and more so in World War II than today. (Dunkirk, or Dunkerque, means “church of the dunes,” for what it’s worth.)
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Dunkirk a miracle, but like the event it chronicles it’s certainly an improbable wonder: an unfashionable sort of war film, largely starring unknowns, with an entirely European (almost all U.K.) cast and no American presence, no strongly developed characters or typical character arcs, about an operation that was a success, but not a victory. The film is a victory: a celebration of a spirit of solidarity that seems all but lost today.
Caveat Spectator: Intense but largely bloodless battle violence; some language. Teens and up.