Director/Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers…
The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beachfront of the French coastal region of Dunkirk remains one of the most legendary intervals of World War II. The beaten, bedraggled force of 400,000 men, left without recourse after the infamous Nazi blitzkrieg attacks that invaded Belgium and outflanked the Maginot Line, had to be rescued in a military operation that saw the Royal Navy mount a frantic ferry service, with hundreds of smaller craft, borrowed from civilians and even crewed by them, pressed into service to get men off the beaches. As a result, the core of the British army was saved, the Nazi advance found a limit in Western Europe, and the seeds were sown for eventual resurgence and victory. Or as the comic writer and performer Spike Milligan once reported a veteran of the event telling him soon after, “It was a fuck-up, son – a highly successful fuck-up.” Not that you’ll encounter such brusque and irreverent description of it today.
Today, the appeal of Dunkirk as an event has an obvious wellspring as a moment of great communal action, one not without its dark side and its ahistorical mythologising attached, but still essentially true, an epic event that allowed the future to happen. It is the first act in the modern world’s creation myth, with D-Day the second, the turning of the worm. It also has a less agreeable facet now, as the rhetoric of Churchillian resolve and the epic stature of the age have been highjacked by sectors of contemporary society to service how they fondly imagine themselves and their quarrels with the realities of our common inheritance. But perhaps the event’s other aspect speaks equally to others, the background of calamity and resolve, the need for this-far-and-no-farther grit in the face of adversity.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Warner Bros. felt reasonably comfortable expending a huge sum of money on recreating the event. That, and the fact that Christopher Nolan is now fully testing the near-unique reach he’s gained as one of the few popular auteurs standing in contemporary Hollywood. Whatever else one thinks of Nolan, it is certain he’s a distinctive, ambitious talent who wants to reach a mass audience but in terms that don’t compromise his specific vision and methods. Either way, Dunkirk hasn’t had a particularly good time when it comes to movies. The event was encompassed but not depicted in William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver (1942), and the subject of a torpid and flimsy Ealing Studios production, Leslie Norman’s Dunkirk (1958).
Although the film around it was wounded by the half-hearted pretensions of its source material, Joe Wright’s 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement contained a mini-movie depicting the event that has stood as certainly the finest to date, a five-minute tracking shot of extraordinary choreography and artistry following the film’s tragic hero in the midst of the evacuation chaos, a scene of cruelty and camaraderie, bleak immediacy and woozy surrealism, a desperate search for a locus of order and meaning only to be faced with its dissolution. The overt technical conceit succeeded in its aim of reordering the viewer’s sense of reality.
By comparison, in the first minutes of Nolan’s film, when one of his main characters stumbles onto the beaches, Nolan’s eye surveys great expanses dotted with soldiers spaced and grouped into the kind of geometric compositions Nolan is extremely fond of. Although Nolan’s Dunkirk proposes to plunge the viewer into a hectic event, even at its most madcap, this film is rather the by-product of a relentless eye and mind, one always imposing calculation and mechanistic contemplation upon the happenstance business of popular art.
Nolan takes a familiar conceit from this kind of panoramic drama in depicting action from three different viewpoints – one from a soldier on the beach, one a pilot in the air, and one the owner-captain of a boat pressed into the citizens’ flotilla – but gives it a tweak by presenting them in different time frames. Thus the aerial swashbuckling of RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) takes place over a one-hour period; the voyage of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their young friend George (Barry Keoghan) unfolds over a day, and the survival run of battered soldiers Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles) lasts a week. All intersect eventually during the flux of events, with Nolan cross-cutting between the three different time frames, thus finding a real-world way to recycle the dream-state levels of Inception (2010).
The humans in these scenes, many of whom are scarcely invested in specifics of character or identity and quite often unnamed on screen (thank you, internet), are intended in part deliberately as blank slates and avatars, clotheshorses for Nolan to drape the experiential finery of his filmmaking on: Tommy’s very name signifies him as the essential British soldier. Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy pop up, looking windswept and uncomfortable as two officers, Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant, who stand in for the higher rank’s perspective and to offer fillips of exposition for an event that is otherwise left sketched only in the vaguest of terms as to why and how it came to such a pass. The mission statement here is to thrust the audience headlong into gruelling situations alongside these avatars in events that present, in their microcosmic way, extrapolations of the drama as a whole, in its various layers of eye-level experience.
Great history is given a man-sized makeover (and I do mean man; no weepy mothers or sultry French hookers a la war movies of decades past get in the way here; a couple of nurses do get the odd line). Tommy and Gibson are two young privates thrust into each other’s company on the beach, when Tommy, who has just managed to beat a gauntlet of German besiegers on his route to the British pocket, sees Gibson burying the body of another soldier. Although Gibson will not or cannot speak, the two men join forces to try to find a more expeditious route onto a rescue ship, and so volunteer as stretcher bearers, carrying a man aboard a hospital ship, dodging the queues and the bomb craters punched in the long wharf, or ‘mole.’
Although they’re then kicked off the ship, the two men clamber down onto the underside of the mole to await a chance to slip back aboard this craft or another. But a Stuka bombing raid sinks the ship, and the pair help pluck Alex and other men from the water before they are crushed by lolling weight of steel. The trio flee down along the beach and take refuge with other soldiers in a beached boat, hoping to sail it for home when the tide dislodges it from the sand. But this plan goes awry when Germans beyond the British perimeter start using the boat for target practice, and the tide starts to flood the hold instead.
Meanwhile Dawson, a gentleman of the coast who seems to have experience from the last war, sets to sea with a desire to help with his son and his friend aboard, having lost his elder son, an RAF pilot, already in the conflict. They pick up a soldier (Cillian Murphy) who’s survived the sinking of a rescue ship and is suffering badly from traumatic stress. The soldier panics when he realises his rescuers are heading on back to Dunkirk. During a tussle for control of the vessel, George is knocked back down into the boat’s interior and hits his head. Blinded at first, George soon dies of an aneurysm, but Dawson continues with his mission to save more men. Above their heads, Farrier and Collins try to ward off the Luftwaffe bombers playing havoc with the rescue; Farrier can’t tell how much fuel he has left after bullets knock out his gauge, so his fight is defined by uncertain guesswork as to how long he can continue it, whilst Collins is shot down over water.
I’ve had many issues with Nolan’s films in the past, but I had started to come around with him after the messy yet fitfully interesting third chapter to his very profitable Batman trilogy, and the sometimes excellent science fiction epic Interstellar (2014), a film that eventually foundered on Nolan’s uneasy attempts to fuse Kubrickian grammatics with Spielbergian emotionalism and a glum retreat into sub-2001 mind-bending, but conjured a genuinely epic brand of realist scifi along the way. It was a real movie, as opposed to a cinematic conjuring trick or pseudo-intellectualisation of genre and comic book fodder.
Dunkirk sees Nolan venturing into historical drama and factual portraiture for the first time in his career, a choice that promises in abstract to discipline the writer-director within new parameters. And yet for better and worse, Dunkirk is a Nolan film through and through. Few contemporary filmmakers are as confident in wielding the infrastructure of a big-scale movie production in such a way that it remains touched with a strong personal aesthetic, which in Nolan’s case means scene after scene shot in a dingy colour palette, showy editing patterns, and cunningly orchestrated sound effects. Never in the history of cinema have the sounds of men’s muffled screaming as they drown been so peerlessly communicated.
A fascinating disconnection lays at the heart of Dunkirk, as it did with Interstellar. Nolan is a filmmaker who wants to engage in a voluble sense of human vulnerability, and yet he has little gift as a dramatist, and his human figures tend to stand in for states of mind and feelings rather than experience them. Many said that about Stanley Kubrick, one of Nolan’s evident and oft-cited inspirations, as well, but there were qualities to be picked up in Kubrick, from his coal-black humour to his sarcastic sensuality and the genuine rigour of his shot-for-shot cinema, that are totally absent from Nolan.
Take, for instance, the early scenes that see Tommy escaping German bullets, and, when he gets his first time out on the beach, squats down to shit. No worry about mess. Nolan offers this sequence like a bonsai tree, lovely and potted and carefully groomed of all offensive detail as a sop to the supposed grit of his vision, and yet like everything else we see here, it’s preeningly aestheticized. Still, Dunkirk is very much a work of contemporary cinema style, and for a time, this is bracing: there’s no nostalgic gloss or air of antiquity to proceedings here even as the technology tends to look quaint now, like the Spitfires drilling the sky, battling opponents only with a pair of machine guns and their own good eyes to give them effect, and the Lee-Enfield rifles that seem so paltry a defence in the face of mechanised war.
Nolan stages action scenes as a constant scruff-of-the-neck scramble, as when Tommy and Gibson, apparently delivered upon a rescue ship only then to be torpedoed, are forced to survive near-drowning, or later, when a different ship is sunk and we’re treated to a harum-scarum cacophony of images as some manage to swim for safety and others are cooked by spilt fuel oil lit up by a crashing Nazi bomber. Nolan’s images come on coolly at first but soon begin to pile on with ferocity as hell breaks loose. Yet to make a film about such an event takes a streak of madness, of understanding of what it feels like to have the world drop out beneath your feet, and the capacity to revel in it. And if there’s one thing certain about Nolan, it’s that he doesn’t have a mad bone in his body.
This is, after all, the man who remade the id-shaped heroes and villains of the Batman tales into creatures of witless literalism and who structured tales of romantic tragedy and adventures into the mind’s recesses as puzzles with placards at their hearts in Memento (2001) and Inception. The trouble with this approach steadily unveils itself, stripping out such niceties as personality, context, and interest in the authentic players of history and replacing them with these pasteboard exemplars who wear looks of hangdog gravitas. This suits what Nolan actually does with his account of Dunkirk, which is to essentially reduce the event to a particularly gruelling fantasy adventure camp and theme park. Survive the sinking ship. Shoot down the Messerschmitt. Crap on the beach. Dodge the broken pier of death. It’s no wonder Nolan is a god for millennial film buffs; he speaks fluently the language of video game.
In Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), the famous D-Day beach opening had its calculated side but successful realised a maelstrom of chaos and gore; death comes from every direction, in every manner. Here, Nolan winds up one shot of a creeping barrage of Stuka bombs advancing towards Tommy and blowing up a neighbour with the precious, self-satisfied smirk of a talented child arranging the elements on stage for a puppet theatre. Nolan compensates for his cynicism towards traditional drama by conveying dread through his films’ constant steely mood lighting. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s photography is fine and crisp but plays the same relentless game as Hans Zimmer’s scoring.
Before going into the film I kept in mind the way Nolan uses Zimmer’s music to propel his drama and quite often provide it, and with such awareness in mind I became acutely conscious of how marvellously the music is used to high-pressure the viewer, as Zimmer mimics a ticking clock and surging tide. Much like James Brown made his band into a giant percussion instrument to fuel funk’s polyrhythms, Zimmer’s orchestrations are less music than metronome, shunting the images along with false urgency, Pavlovian cues steamrolling us into obedience. The crowds of extras are supposed to be stoic and sullen in patient anxiety whilst occasionally showing their humanity, mostly by roaring approval of certain acts of bravery. But in fact they’re as subject to Nolan’s relentlessness as a moulder of elements as any of Fritz Lang’s crowds depicting citizens of medieval Europe or futuristic Metropolis, devoid of raucous communal life.
Nolan’s dedication to studying the event through more of a communal than individual lens has a certain worthiness and aesthetic potential, but in comparison to a filmmaker like Miklos Jancso who really could realise historical events in a way where the mass enacted a tale (e.g., Red Psalm, 1972), Nolan is a clodhopper who reduces characters to switchable pieces of a crowd rather than finding character in the crowd. No one swears, plays cards, tells dirty jokes, sings a ditty, gets drunk. This is our contemporary realism: the stuff of life in the margins is excised. It is not important. Importance is now measured in venturesome suffering.
Nolan’s attempt to synthesise a restrained emotional palette suits the material, and Rylance in particular handles this well. But dialogue barely serviceable as expressions of human communication drops from the characters’ lips on occasions, as when Branagh’s Bolton stares out to sea and pronounces, “You can almost see it from here.” “See what?” asks Winnant. “Home.” Later, he stares out to sea (he does a lot of this) and, beholding the small boat flotilla heading to the rescue, he’s asked, “What do you see?” “Hope,” he replies. Nolan got paid to write this stuff, folks. Occasional flickers of anger are displayed, mostly with the RAF for their sparse attendance of the festivities, and by the finish Nolan suddenly makes a thing out of the soldiers’ shame in defeat only then to find they’re being greeted as heroes anyway.
Nolan makes some effort to invest some complexity in his portrait of the situation, particularly in the scenes on the beached boat where Tommy, Gibson, and Alex have taken shelter with a gang of similarly unmoored men from the Highlander regiment. The young soldiers quickly reveal unreasoning ferocity in the face of blind terror. As the boat starts to flood with the rising tide, they turn on each-other. One soldier (Brian Vernel) gets it in his head, in Nolan’s efforts to generate a moral crisis, that they need to throw someone overboard to lighten the boat, in spite of the fact they’re on a sizeable craft where such an action would be utterly useless: they pick out Gibson in his silence as the odd man out, forcing the man to admit that he’s actually a French soldier who’s put on an English uniform to make his escape, his silence a ploy rather than a manifestation of shellshock. Tommy still bleatingly defends him: “It’s not fair.” This sequence reminded me of the similar moral quandary of the two bomb triggers Nolan deployed in The Dark Knight (2008), and it’s just as wince-inducing in its clumsiness as a story device and facetious as a depiction of the panicky idiot lurking under the surface of all men. Even as jittery and desperate as the men here are supposed to be, no-one in his right mind could possibly think through one man off so large a boat is going to stop it sinking.
Here Nolan reminded me of some other films with blind spots in this regard, like Joseph Losey’s King & Country (1964), proposing to stick up for the little man in the face of great men’s games but ironically, in portraying that little man as gallant and those others as bestial primitives. When Nagisa Oshima cast David Bowie in his POW drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983), it was to exploit a pop star’s strange and alien beauty and use it ironically, to make him emissary of the human race in a way a Byzantine religious artist might have appreciated, as a vision of the rarefied soul. Nolan casts Styles, likewise a pop star foraying into acting, and buries him in the avalanche of lookalikes, a nobody in a sea of nobodies.
The same weakness is evident in another of narrative’s strands, as young George collapses and dies, killed in part by the war and its effect on people. If we actually, properly knew who George was, his end might offer some pathos. Peter doesn’t let the man responsible know George has died. He chalks it up to a fortune of war instead, choosing rather to seek memorialisation for George as a young hero of the great event. Nolan makes a nod here to John Ford’s famous dictum of “print the legend” evinced in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). And yet for all its avant-garde visual force and desire to communicate survivalist urges as an overriding trait, Dunkirk is actually astonishingly square as an historical portrait, the exemplification of “print the legend.” There is no political or institutional anger evinced here, or attempt to assess the failures of a mindset as a way of learning what goes wrong in war and why, as there was in, say, Richard Fleischer’s Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) or Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977).
Dunkirk may well have invented a new cinematic genre: the history movie without history. When the great flotilla turns up, envisioned by Nolan as the cavalry running to the rescue, their crews stand upon the decks, chin cocked at noble angles, like they’ve all escaped from some Soviet Realist poster. Rylance’s performance as Dawson is both exceptionally good in its reserve and concision of emotional effect, but it also exemplifies Nolan’s assimilation of cliché: he’s an archetype of everything homespun and simple, soft-spoken and naturally gracious, exactly what we’d fondly like to imagine everyone engaged in this enterprise was like. Hardy’s handsome mug is hidden behind a mask most of the time, elected as stand-in for the Few.
It feels particularly tempting to compare Dunkirk to Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001), a lumbering and ridiculous melodrama that at least signalled some understanding of itself as such, an attempt to visit the past through the lens of that past’s own methods of mythmaking – sweeping cinematic romance and archetypes. Nolan’s efforts here pose as deep and true, but commit the same fraud as Bay did, reducing warfare to an obstacle course whilst affirming movie star credentials through flyboy antics, as Hardy’s masked but dogged hero shoots down about six German airplanes. Man, Tom Hardy is cool.
The aerial combat scenes are easily the best thing about Dunkirk however, as Nolan, usually not a director who gives any great thought as to where and why he places a camera, here often tethers his perspective to that of the pilots, their enemies appearing as flashes in the rear-view mirror to the clatter of bullets on the fuselage, or trying to catch a glimpse of a friend or enemy in the water far below. There are only pure equations to survival up here – what you can and can’t see, how long until the fuel runs out. Nolan manages something reasonably original in this way, but then undercuts the exacting practicality as he strains credibility by having Farrier continue to shoot down enemy planes even when he’s run out of fuel, and then barrels in for a perfect landing on the beach, struggling with recalcitrant landing gear all the way.
Whilst Nolan’s temporal gimmick is engaging on some levels, inviting the viewer to piece together how everything fits in the mind and feel the pleasure of certain actions gaining context at length, I wish it didn’t often provoke to wonder if it wasn’t a great ruse on Nolan’s part to cover up how bad he’s been in the past at tracking action. Dunkirk both held my attention but constantly frustrated it, and by the end left me cold in a way that infuriates.
Once, ambition and vision in Hollywood could mean works like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Heaven’s Gate (1980), giant, shambling, endlessly rich mosaics composed of history, dreams, ideas, and fervent emotion. By comparison, Dunkirk reveals how small-minded and blankly impersonal such cinema can be even as Nolan expands the limits of his frames and the impact of his sound and vision. Dunkirk demands to be described in hip clichés like “immersive” and “experiential,” but the cause such aesthetic aims are supposed to serve, in sensitising us to the meaning of individual perspective and placing us in the shoes of people overwhelmed by circumstances, are swiftly transmuting into the opposite, a method used by contemporary filmmakers to turn the art form into something more like virtual reality, sapped of dramatic – and therefore human – values. Along with it, history becomes fodder for a simplistic action-survival thriller – one without the pleasures of pulp or the tatty, bratty cornball of folk history, but instead decked out in its own borrowed finery of import. Kubrick could give you both a moment of profound sentiment like the famous singalong at the end of Paths of Glory (1957) and also a stinging moment of personal rage and black comedy like the anointed martyr who makes his prayers to wine rather than gods. Nothing like that subsists here. This is a cold, barren, sterile beach to die on.