Christopher Nolan wants you to pay attention. He wants you to see the details, to find the patterns, to put the pieces of his puzzle together. He rarely just tells you what’s going on, he uses visual and sound cues, and wants you to marvel as it all draws together. His films often revolve around the concept of time and how it warps in memory or in dreams. In Memento, we moved backwards through time with memory-damaged Leonard, with the effect of experiencing how Leonard might understand the world while also piecing together his story. In Inception, we get a heavy exposition download, but Nolan strings visual and musical cues to demonstrate the dreamscape and levels of consciousness that Cobb and company traverse in their information heist. In Interstellar, we follow Cooper and Murph through their time loop as they struggle to close the light years between them (and save humanity, but…details). Nolan believes his audience is smart, and endeavors not to talk down to them, but he is always trying to outsmart them.
Dunkirk receives the Nolan-time treatment to arguably great effect, allowing the audience to understand the breadth and depth of the terror British soldiers felt as they haplessly waited in queues on a beach for their rescue. A rescue which feels more dubious with every sinking boat or passing fighter plane. The movie follows three threads, the soldiers on the beach, the fighter pilots in the air, and a civilian boat on its way to help.
*Spoiler alert! From here on in, major plot points for Dunkirk are discussed. Here be spoilers, consider yourselves warned*
“You can practically see it from here.” “What?” “Home.”
Americans may not be as familiar with the details of the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940. British and French armies had been forced back to the most-northern point of France, the titular Dunkirk, by German forces. The British soldiers lined up on the beach, awaiting their ships, ducking for cover when attacked by bomb-dropping Luftwaffe, resignedly lining back up after another round of chaos and carnage. From the opening scene they are exhausted, and just hoping to survive, desperately hoping for home.
We follow “The Mole” (Fionn Whitehead) as he meets another soldier, and they silently agree to try to maneuver onto any departing vessel. The Colonel (Kenneth Branagh) directs the evacuation attempt with increasing despair. And the soldiers, all cheekbones and lookalike youth, batter back desperation and melancholy, and strive for survival.
Back in England, the Navy is requisitioning civilian boats to send to assist with the evacuation at Dunkirk across The Sea. One such boat joins the armada of small vessels without a Navy man aboard, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son, and their young friend bravely set off for France to assist in the rescue effort. When they save a soldier (Cillian Murphy) from a sunken ship, he is shocked to see the elderly Mr. Dawson. “Someone your age…you should be at home!” he sputtered.
In The Air, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) swoop in to provide air support and take out the enemy bombers harassing the beach at Dunkirk. Farrier and Collins take down the faceless enemy, staying calm in the face of what must seem like inevitable death. The ocean promises u-boats or the possibility of drowning. The skies hide the enemy above and below the clouds. The beaches are far, and fuel is limited. Farrier watches his comrades being shot down. Hardy, who has learned to act around a wide variety of face-covering implements (seriously directors, is getting Hardy to act with only half his face some sort of running gag or just an added level of difficulty for the man?), conveys concern, calculation, and determination through just a variety of squints and brow furrows.
The Air is where the cinematography truly feeds life into the film, and is where most of the IMAX footage was shot from. The Sky reaches out forever, The Sea below is never ending. Even the beach seems to go on into the distance. These sprawling landscapes have the effect of being too big and simultaneously claustrophobic. Nowhere, not the sea, the air, or the beach, is safe. Every landscape hides the enemy. When Collins is shot down and lands in the ocean, he prepares to calmly bail out of his plane as water begins to seep in. When the hatch reveals itself as stuck after the impact of hitting the water, panic joins the water trickling into the scene, the camera remains focused tightly on his face and in the cockpit. We don’t know this story, there is no main character guaranteed to make it to the end of the film, so this pilot could very well be in danger. The tense scene is echoed in the camera not being allowed to escape the hatch along with Collins, giving the audience a real sense of dread and fear.
“WE SURROUND YOU.”
Nolan wisely focuses on the mission of the Dunkirk evacuation, and we never get to know the characters in depth. This approach is very different than most war films wherein the focus is on one lead character, and follows their mission ala Saving Private Ryan. This technique helps narrow the scope of an otherwise sprawling, difficult to grasp, bigger than life event, and make it personal. Dunkirk ignores this concept, and the narrative, which is extremely sparse on dialogue, focuses on the mission. It’s a big mission, and it would be dragged down by focusing on any one individual character. The soldiers are nearly identical dark haired young men. The Colonel seems to be a fairly stoic, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” sort of fellow; though he was given a little sparkle by the always great Branagh as his desperation bottomed out, and then was finally lifted to near elation when the small ships arrived, and that relief and joy stand out. There is no one hero in Dunkirk, survival was the goal, and everyone had to play a part for success. We might recognize some regular Nolan players (and even Michael Cain manages an appearance of sorts!), but they are among the few characters that need to stand out so we can subsequently identify them in later scenes. Even the enemy is faceless as we never see the German forces, but they are always present. Civilians entered a war zone to save their countrymen, pilots fought on despite their dwindling fuel supplies, colonels stayed to ferry more men to safety.
My one complaint is that I apparently couldn’t pick Harry Styles out of a line-up, and I was distracted non-stop wondering “Is that him?” which may have led me to realize just how much the soldiers looked like each other. I had to wait until I got out of the theater to figure out who this mysterious Harry Styles character was. That was annoying and distracting. He seemed fine in the film, but I wish I hadn’t known he was in it.
Dunkirk was a successful evacuation against stacked odds, but the result wasn’t triumphant victory. The soldiers retreated to fight another day, they survived. They were knocked down but not out. One of Nolan’s favorite themes echoes here, will Britain rise up after it has failed? We know the answer, but those soldiers never did. Dunkirk is full of anxiety, sorrow, and courage. And in the end, the victory isn’t a military one, it’s merely that they managed to survive.
Nolan clearly took a heavy hand in the direction of the score of Dunkirk. He needs the music to ramp up the tension, the ticking clock counting down to destruction, whether with a plucked violin or a drumbeat, and force you to clutch the edge of your seat. Hans Zimmer, who has worked with Nolan on most of his major films, ramps up the anxiety and the pressure with his expertly timed musical cues. The staccato nearly dictates the beating of your heart. This Vox piece does an amazing breakdown of why the technique is so effective (and it’s not the ticking sound that plays such a prominent role).
I suspect that if you go to see Dunkirk expecting a straight-forward war film you will be disappointed. However, Dunkirk is a Nolan masterpiece, expertly crafted to the most minute details.