There’s no such thing as a flawless artist, but there are artists who learn to make their flaws work for them.
If there’s a common theme to the works of writer/director Christopher Nolan, it’s that his films are precisely executed but often lacking in emotional connection. The science and technical mastery have always been a pleasure to watch, but with them comes a sense of distance. In Interstellar, Nolan made attempts to correct this, but forcing feelings just highlighted how bad the director is at making them work organically. In Dunkirk, Nolan has found a way to take this style of calculation and distance work to his advantage – by making an entire film revolve around distance calculation.
Dunkirk tells three stories from the Allied forces’ evacuation from Dunkirk harbor during the battle of France – one from land, air, and sea. Each story takes place in a different time frame ranging from one week to one hour, and true to Nolan’s love of synchronization, they eventually line up and interact. Stuck on land, a young British private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), is making every possible attempt to get on a boat and escorted home, but is thwarted at every turn. Eventually he teams up with two other soldiers named Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles) and the three run through a series of failed escape plans.
Meanwhile, as the navy prepares to commandeer civilian ships to help with the evacuation, an older man (Mark Rylance), his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) set off to Dunkirk in their own boat, ready to transport soldiers themselves. Along the way they pick up a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) who protests their plan to return to the beach he just escaped from. Finally, in the air, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), two British Spitfire pilots, patrol the sky to protect the ships from the enemy’s air support – despite Farrier’s desperately low fuel supply. The stories find their fulcrum on the Dunkirk dock, where two commanders from the British Army and Navy (James D’Arcy and Kenneth Brangah) respond to the events and re-strategize.
Dunkirk heavily features Nolan’s love of numbers, metrics, and measurement, and he seamlessly forces the audience onto his playing field by making the audience do the math. Characters frequently make declarative statements like “one stretcher on that boat takes the place of seven standing men.” Extra emphasis is placed on proximity, as Nolan emphasizes large sweeping swaths of beach or tight, cramped supply boats. Proximity is constantly on the character’s minds, as relative safety means running 100 meters down the shore or swimming just a few feet to grab a ladder. Time is measured – and synchronized – throughout using metrics like water flowing into a ship or a depleting fuel gauge. These elements, combined with clever sound design and Hans Zimmer’s footstep-pulsating score, form the consistent tension which is Dunkirk’s backbone.
Most notable about the film is not everything it does, but also the things it feels that it doesn’t have to do.
Primarily, it doesn’t feel like a “war epic” needs to be a three-hour journey. Dunkirk clocks in at a lean hour-and-47-minutes, with not a single second spent unnecessarily. This leads into another thing Dunkirk doesn’t do: It doesn’t waste audience time with backstories. There are no sepia-tone flashbacks, no cliche-filled longing over a photo of the “girl back home”. In fact, we are given very little information about the men we follow through this journey.
This approach is interesting because it shows a level of trust in the audience, or perhaps it reveals a staggering lack of trust that other movies have. American audiences have been conditioned by war movies to believe that in order to want to leave a war, soldiers need to have a good reason. The implication is that some people “deserve” to get home more than others. For the most part, Dunkirk’s protagonist just want to go home, because it’s war, and war is awful. We don’t know if they were good people beforehand, we don’t really know anything other than what happens during the films runtime. Whereas other war epics take the “earn this” mentality and focus on specific ideologies to show the goodness of their characters, thus proving they are deserving of a hero’s ending, Dunkirk takes the approach that no one really needs an excuse to want to escape war.
The complaint here is obvious – that trimming all this fat doesn’t leave much time for character development.
It’s a fair comment, but the film isn’t really interested in telling the story of individual members, it’s interested in covering the event from all perspectives. The material here is presented, rather than remarked upon. This, again, is Nolan’s traditional emotional detachment played as a strength. The film passes no more judgement on the characters who want to run home than it praises the ones who decide to press on. This may leave a sense of ethical ambiguity when, for instance, a shell-shocked soldier receives no comeuppance for accidentally committing an atrocity while trying to get home. But Dunkirk is fine leaving its morals as grey as its color grading.
A great deal has been made of Christopher Nolan’s bashing of Netflix and his commitment to bigger and larger film formats. The truth is, Dunkirk is a film experience which benefits from being seen on the largest screen with the best sound system you can access. But “beneficial” is not the same as “necessary.” Because it combines a larger scope with three smaller internal functions, there’s arguments to made that what you get from the film will vary depending on how you see it. The experiences may be different, but they won’t be negative. Dunkirk is a rewarding viewing experience however you can see it.Liked This? Share It!