Warner Bros. Pictures
There is a trap built into franchise movies, and part of what defines Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker is the way he not only understands that trap, but has actively worked to evade it. Only by embracing Batman, one of the biggest and most commercially viable properties in the world, was he able to buy the freedom to make giant-scale movies his way about the things that interest him. Three movies about a superhero with daddy issues means you get to make experimental films about historical stories with no easy narrative hook. That’s Hollywood math at its finest.
It is important because there are few people who could get something like DUNKIRK made, and even fewer who could make it this way, with this level of technical skill. There are plenty of war movies, and certainly since Saving Private Ryan, we’ve seen a different kind of war on film, more graphic and experiential. Even so, it seems like it’s hard for filmmakers to shake the narrative conventions that define the genre, and one of the biggest problems is the way writers and directors lean on stereotype to help define character amidst the mayhem.
With Dunkirk, it feels like Christopher Nolan tried to push past that and tell this story in a new way, largely eschewing dialogue except when it’s used almost as sound effect. Fans of the director’s work will not be surprised to see that he is experimenting with time in the way he structures the story he tells here, but even so, it feels like an especially sophisticated example of what he’s known for, and it packs an emotional punch that feels earned and honest.
I’ve made jokes over the last couple of months on social media about the overbearing presence of IMAX in every piece of key-art for the film, but the truth is that Nolan may be the only filmmaker working right now who has enough hands-on experience shooting IMAX to actually make innovative use of the format in theaters. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema make exceptional use of the taller, more narrow frame as a way of making it feel like Dunkirk is something that is happening to us, not something we are merely watching.
The film opens with a haunting shot of soldiers walking through a small town, thousands of paper fliers fluttering in the air around them. We’re not given any grounding. We see one of them grab a paper, and we see that it’s a message from the Germans, showing how the soldiers are surrounded on all sides and how they’re going to be killed. When shots erupt, we’re not sure where they’re coming from or who’s being shot at, only that it’s startling, upsetting. We’re never given any formal introduction to characters here. Just soldiers, in the middle of a situation, trying to stay alive. When we finally make it to the beach, it’s not an escape. It’s simply moving from one Hell to the next.
Warner Bros. Pictures
I capitalize “Hell” because that’s what the beach at Dunkirk feels like. Nolan tells three different stories in the film, and it’s not until late in the game that he starts to reveal exactly where they intersect. One of them deals with two soldiers trying to find a way off the beach. There are over 400,000 soldiers there at the start of the week-long ordeal, and word is that less than 30,000 of them are going to be rescued. There are bombing runs on the assembled troops, and conditions are horrible even when they’re not being shot at. Even when they do make it off the beach, conditions conspire to return them to the sand repeatedly, and it begins to feel like an existentialist nightmare. We have always been on the beach. We will always be on the beach. There is nothing left but the beach.
Tom Hardy appears as a fighter pilot tasked with clearing the skies over the coast around the beach, assisting in the evacuation as much as possible, and his entire storyline takes place over a single hour. It’s a largely non-verbal role, shot in close-up, much of the time with half of his face covered, and yet, it is tremendous work. Hardy is one of those actors who can communicate volumes with just his eyes, and this is every bit as engaged and rich a performance as he’s given. It’s not a swaggering hero role, but it is heroic in a very real and powerful way. Watching how he handles things over the course of this single mission is a reminder of just how much casual heroism has to happen during wartime, moments where a single action can change the course of dozens or even hundreds of lives.
That’s even more true in the film’s third main storyline, which takes place over one long day. Mark Rylance plays a man who takes his personal boat and heads across the sea to France to rescue English soldiers. He’s not special. He doesn’t have a great, amazing boat. He’s not armed with some secret reserve. He’s just an Englishman looking to do right by other Englishman during a time of enormous crisis. He is the person who wars are won by, the faceless invisible person doing something extra to help push everyone in the direction of victory, and the film is a testament to just how many of those people there have to be in order for things to keep working. There is something very moving about the approach here, because by eliminating easy action heroes from a war film, you suddenly get a portrait of the real human face of war. Very few people are John Wayne; the vast majority are far more Mark Rylance.
It is an antidote to the entire notion of playing these films as simplistic parables of good and bad. War is far more complicated than that, particularly at the ground level, right up close to the mud and the hunger and the death and the disease. War is not a thought exercise in some room in some safe building in some safe city thousands of miles from where real boys with real families lie dying on the ground. War is sacrifice and fear and moments of hope, and it is about fighting for the definition of who we are.
Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy appear as Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant, and I had to look those names up, because they are not presented here as being above the fray or better than the men around them. They are shown to be frustrated and human and unable to really change the course of things. They know they are going to lose men. They know they are going to make decisions that mean some of these people never go home. Every decision, every hour that ticks by, every failure… it all looks like it takes a toll on them.
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The cast is uniformly good, and part of what makes the film overwhelming by the time it finally concludes is the way all these small human details add up. No one has the kind of showstopping emotional scene that you typically get in these films, where someone reveals their whole backstory via monologue or talks about watching a friend die, or freaks out about the reality of war. Even when they deal with ideas like that, it’s done with single images or quick asides, etched rather than underlined in red.
Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden and many more all get a chance to register in these roles as they go by, and it doesn’t matter if you know a character’s name or everything about them. Cillian Murphy is pulled from the ocean, shivering and emotionally broken, and while he doesn’t “do” much, he has a rough spiritual ride here. Watching the way Rylance and Carney deal with him is eloquent, moving, and deftly woven into this large-scale tapestry that Nolan is creating.
Image after image, scene after scene, sequence after sequence, Dunkirk is affecting and absorbing. Nolan is working at the absolute peak of his craft here, as are his amazing collaborators. Hans Zimmer turns in a score that is every bit as resonant and haunting as his work on The Thin Red Line, and yet it doesn’t echo that score in any way. Nolan uses score almost subliminally here, and he’s not playing off of conventional emotional cues. I hate using the word “poetry” to describe a film, but there is a transcendent quality to many of the moments that Nolan creates here, and Zimmer is careful to never overwhelm, never overplay it. This film requires a feather touch to work, and Zimmer delivers.
Lee Smith has been working with Nolan for a while now, and part of what Nolan tries to do with each film is build an experience that is only complete with every single last shot in place. Think about how important the final image in each of his films is. Think about the methodical precision on display in The Dark Knight or The Prestige or Inception. These are carefully constructed movies, and they’re designed to pull you into the experience and then hold you there as long as possible before finally connecting the dots and giving you that feeling of “Oh, now I see the picture,” that joyful discovery as the context snaps into focus. That’s the satisfaction when a Christopher Nolan film works. He is just as married to the reveal as M. Night Shyamalan. It’s just that Shyamalan structures his films like a magic trick, so the reveal is everything. Nolan wants that reveal to sneak up on you. He wants you to forget there’s ever going to be a reveal. That way, when it comes, it feels like an inevitability being laid bare. OF COURSE that’s where the film was going. That means you can’t put a single thing in the wrong place as you build to those reveals. Confidence is part of what makes that work. That’s what Nolan gets when he works with Lee Smith over and over, a confidence that they share a keen understanding of how to do it right. They’ve done it before, and they are getting better at it. Bringing the complicated chronologies of Dunkirk into sync feels like an almost impossible task, but it’s positively musical the way Smith and Nolan orchestrate things.
Dunkirk is harrowing. It is not an easy experience. It is not a spoonfed version of history, designed for easy nostalgia. It is a vital and demanding film from an artist who is determined to use the big commercial stage to ask more of the audience. What could have easily been a cold formal exercise instead gives real human life to a small and horrible corner of one of the most traumatic global events in recorded history. WWII has been thoroughly digested by Hollywood as well as European cinema, and it would seem that there is nothing left to say about it. But with Dunkirk, Nolan makes a forceful case that, in the right hands, there is always something left to say, and some new way to say it.
Running time: 107 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic