Film Review: Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’

Steven Spielberg laid claim to the Normandy beach landing,
Clint Eastwood owns Iwo Jima, and now, Christopher Nolan has authored
the definitive cinematic version of Dunkirk. Unlike those
other battles, however, this last was not a conventional
victory, but more of a salvaged retreat, as the German
offensive forced a massive evacuation of English troops early
in World War II. And unlike those other two directors, Nolan is
only nominally interested in the human side of the story as he
puts his stamp on the heroic rescue operation, offering a
bravura virtual-eyewitness account from multiple perspectives —
one that fragments and then craftily interweaves events as seen
from land, sea and air.

Take away the film’s prismatic structure and this could be a
classic war picture for the likes of Lee Marvin or John Wayne.
And yet, there’s no question that the star here is Nolan
himself, whose attention-grabbing approach alternates among
three strands, chronological but not concurrent, while
withholding until quite late the intricate way they all fit
together. Though the subject matter is leagues (and decades)
removed from the likes of “Inception” and “The Dark Knight,”
the result is so clearly “a Christopher Nolan film” — from
its immersive, full-body suspense to the sophisticated way he
manipulates time and space — that his fans will eagerly
follow en masse to witness the achievement. And what an
achievement it is!

From the opening scene, “Dunkirk” places us in a state of
jeopardy as German sharpshooters pick off a group of British
soldiers just yards from the embattled beachhead. Not that
things are any safer on the other side of the French-defended
barricade. “We surround you,” reads an air-dropped leaflet that
accurately represents the Allies’ ever-shrinking position.
Backed against the sea, what remains of the British
Expeditionary Force can practically see their homeland a mere
26 miles away, but are vulnerable to attacks from the air.

The first fly-by bombing catches us just as much off-guard as
it does Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), thin, handsome and hardly
more than a child. His dash to the beach could be a game, if
the gunshots that fell his comrades and explode inches from his
head weren’t so lethal or so loud (as always with Nolan, sound
design dramatically heightens the intensity of the experience).

Driven by a mix of naïveté and survival instinct, Tommy makes
an ideal guide through the week-long ordeal, allowing us to
experience the strange, almost random way that cowardice
blossoms into courage on the battlefield. His storyline,
labeled “The Mole” (possibly a play on words, seeing as how
it’s set primarily on Dunkirk’s pier-like projection, or mole,
but also introduces a somewhat unnecessary subplot involving a
non-British infiltrator, or mole), is the most audacious: It
features hardly any dialogue, relying instead on our ability to
adapt to the unrelentingly harrowing situation, as when
Tommy and another low-ranking soldier (Aneurin Barnard) grab a
stretcher and use the injured man to board a hospital ship,
only to be ordered off moments before it sinks.

No fewer than four British ships go down in “Dunkirk” — not
counting the one from which Cillian Murphy’s nameless
“shivering soldier” is rescued — and each capsizes
alarmingly quickly. This isn’t “Titanic,” in which miniature
melodramas had time to unfold as the boat slowly sank, either.
Whereas air battles are drawn out and repeated for effect,
Nolan and editor Lee Smith compress the doomed-boat scenes for
ruthless efficiency, turning the water into a place of
high-stakes peril.

While big military ships make massive targets for German
bombers and U-boat attacks, Dunkirk’s rough waves and shallow
coastline demanded a different approach, and so Operation
Dynamo was born: an all-hands call to civilian sailors, asking
that they steer any vessel they can, from fishing trawlers
to pleasure yachts, across the English Channel to rescue
as many of the stranded soldiers as possible. Labeled “The
Sea,” this segment feels more traditional, emotionally
manipulative enough to match the almost-corny 1940s British
propaganda film in this year’s “Their Finest.” (Even in Imax,
in which most of the movie fills the massive, nearly-square
aspect ratio, this portion is presented in a relatively
constrained 2.40:1 format — the same dimensions to which
the entire film will be cropped in traditional theaters.)

During this sea-rescue segment, the characters are familiar
archetypes, from duty-bound captain Mr. Dawson (Mark
Rylance
) to determined teenage tagalong George (Barry
Keoghan), and their predictable behavior is elevated by the
actors’ fine performances. Rylance in particular speaks volumes
even when saying very little, and several of the movie’s most
poignant moments are conveyed almost entirely without words,
via his expressions alone — as when Dawson realizes the
likely death that awaits them just beyond the horizon.

Dunkirk’s beaches represent a special kind of hell in the film,
a danger zone where the British are frightfully exposed to
attacks from above — and where fate, in all its grim
absurdity, forces a few of the characters to return multiple
times. Just when the soldiers think they’ve escaped, the tide
pulls them back in.

Though much of the Royal Air Force was ordered not to engage, a
third strand called “The Air” focuses on two Spitfire pilots
(Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) determined to protect, as best they
can, the rescue vessels from airborne German attack.
Hilariously enough, the role finds Hardy once again in Bane
mode, his mouth covered and his dialogue all but inaudible —
and yet, the heroism shows through his actions and the
determined glint in his eyes.

Both Murphy and Hardy have worked with Nolan before (each as
Batman villains), but he uses them in character-actor mode
here, treating these marquee talents as equals among a cast of
newcomers (including Harry Styles, looking every bit the 1940s
matinee idol). Playing the highest-ranking Navy officer on the
beach, Kenneth Branagh provides the film’s only star
performance, and even then, it all comes down to a meaningful
salute delivered in “Dunkirk’s” final minutes.

By this point in the film, Nolan has tied the three storylines
together. While unnecessarily confusing at times (and not
especially satisfying as a puzzle — at least not in the way the
ingenious backward-logic of “Memento” was back in the
day), by splintering these three storylines, the director
allows us to experience the Dunkirk evacuation from multiple
perspectives. In his extensive pre-production research, Nolan
pored over survivors’ firsthand accounts and inevitably found
inconsistencies among them — a phenomenon he ingeniously
incorporates into his screenplay. In “Dunkirk,” subjectivity is
not merely a tool for in-the-moment suspense, but also for
suggesting the innumerable different ways people both lived and
remembered the week’s events: One moment, a Spitfire pilot
might be swooping in to save a Navy ship, and the next, he’s
the one in need of rescuing as his seatbelt jams and his
cockpit fills with water.

And yet, Nolan never once privileges the German p.o.v. (a bold
departure from most war movies, including “Tora! Tora! Tora!,”
which showed both sides, or Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor,” which
famously offered a Japanese bomb’s-eye-view of the attack).
Nolan’s goal is to give an exclusively British account of
events, zeroing in on how it must have felt to the everyday
heroes who lived it, as opposed to the leaders calling the
shots. When Winston Churchill is finally heard, his words are
being read aloud from the pages of a newspaper by an ordinary
soldier, rather than delivered by the prime minister himself.

And in that nuance is the great accomplishment of Nolan’s feat:
On one hand, he has delivered all the spectacle of a big-screen
tentpole, ratcheting up both the tension and heroism through
his intricate and occasionally overwhelming sound design, which
blends a nearly omnipresent ticking stopwatch with Hans
Zimmer’s bombastic score — not so much music as atmospheric
noise, so bassy you can feel it rattling your vertebrae. But at
the same time, he’s found a way to harness that technique in
service of a kind of heightened reality, one that feels more
immersive and immediate than whatever concerns we check at the
door when entering the cinema. This is what audiences want from
a Nolan movie, of course, as a master of the fantastic leaves
his mark on historical events for the first time.

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