“All we did is survive.”
Like a lot of movies worth writing about at length, Christopher Nolan’s terrific new film, Dunkirk, is powered by an engine of combusting contradictions: It’s at once minimalist and maximalist, cynical and dopey, a big-boy white elephant art film that is actually a lean and mean suspense set-piece machine. Here is a lavish, colossal re-telling of the escape of Allied troops over the English Channel from the tip of France in 1940, shot in 70mm with an ensemble cast, though its ostensible subject is the law of survival in the nick of time; long stretches consist of movement without dialogue, and the nesting-doll narrative (refined from Nolan’s sci-fi thriller Inception) brings attention to reflex and scale, all while sucking Dunkirk’s largely unnamed characters toward a climax that also runs the length of the film. (Neat trick, that.) In terms of form, it marks a big step forward for Nolan; restraining his usual choppiness, the Anglo-American creator of long, quasi-cerebral blockbusters has crafted what are head-and-shoulders the purest action scenes of his career, and they take up most of the movie. In other words, Dunkirk finds Nolan playing both genre director and composer-conductor—a 107-minute oratorio for dead wet beaches, gunfire, Stuka dive bombers, Spitfires, ticking clocks, burning oil, and sinking ships, in the key of the filmmaker’s career-long obsession with water and drowning. (See: Inception, Interstellar, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, etc.) At a glance, it seems to have no subtext. But when a movie is set almost entirely over sand and sea, one should know to look below the surface.
Dunkirk’s narrative structure is a surprisingly elegant thing. It comprises three stories, intercut throughout the movie: “The Mole,” which is set over the course of about a week and follows two young soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard) as they try to stow away on the evacuation ships leaving the beaches of Dunkirk; “The Sea,” set over a day, in which the middle-aged Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) putters his motor yacht, the Moonstone, from Dorset to the coast of France to deliver lifejackets, in the process picking up the shell-shocked survivor (Cillian Murphy) of a U-boat attack; and “The Air,” set over an hour, which takes the perspective of two Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) as they try to protect military and civilian vessels taking part in the evacuation across the Channel. These aerial scenes contain some of the most technically accomplished work of Nolan’s career, rarely short of thrilling. But all three sections construct suspense on the basis of visibility, which emerges as Dunkirk’s signal obsession. If there’s anything one learns from this film’s meticulous points-of-view, it’s how hard it is to see or hear another plane from a cramped, noisy Spitfire cockpit; how difficult it is to find an exit in the dark, drowning interior of a sinking ship or to judge from a distance whether a pilot parachuted out before ditching his plane; how viciously torpedoes strike at night. The Germans picking away at the Allied troops are never shown. (They appear on-camera once, but completely out of focus.) And there, to underline the central irony, is a commander (Kenneth Branagh) standing on a pier, pointing out that Britain is only 30 miles away, almost close enough to see on a clear day—and there’s an old blind man to greet the ragged, limping survivors once they return. Survival in war is all about the unseen, says the film.
Hoyte Van Hoytema’s coolly impassive camerawork makes use of both deep-focus staging (there tend to be fewer cuts here than in Nolan’s other movies) and the distinctive razor-thin focus of 70mm, which is a side-effect of the longer lenses needed to shoot in the format. The camera tacks itself to aircraft fuselages or to the belly of an anonymous casualty being rushed on a stretcher; puts faces or close-up details into sharp definition while melting everything else into a blur; fixes on the knuckles of a soldier as he dives face-first into the sand while bombs beat the beach in background. Of course, it makes for great action. However many times Nolan and Van Hoytema recycle the same basic handheld, over-the-shoulder shot of a character looking up in the sky at an approaching aircraft that looks no bigger than a bee, it never really gets old. Neither does the director’s hydrophobia, which plays out over and over in one scene after another of a claustrophobic ship or downed aircraft filling with water. It always seems to have some kind of pseudo-philosophical symbolism: Inception’s bathtub awakenings, The Prestige’s “man in the box,” and so on. But in Dunkirk’s harshly drab palette of grays, blues, and earth tones, war becomes elemental: land, air, and water, fought with fire. Or perhaps it’s the opposite, a perversion of nature. Sinking transport ships set the sea aflame, and sudsy sea foam comes in with the tide, as though the Earth were trying to wash a very human mess off the beach.
Nolan’s movies basically don’t acknowledge the existence of religion, and his politics are exclusively sentimental—the same mush about the hoi polloi needing something to look up to. This makes them hard to pin down ideologically. But Dunkirk, his stubbornly unfashionable passion project, is almost about faith: the evacuation as a microcosm, with young men in uniform clambering to survive one crisis after another, wound together by Hans Zimmer’s omnipresent music. (It’s one of his more abstract scores, but morphs in the final third into a grandiose imitation of early 1980s Vangelis.) The penultimate shot is a dolly-in on a plane engulfed in flames, and it’s a bit like Nolan doing his best Andrei Tarkovsky—a rare moment of metaphysical mystery in a body of work that skews literalist. There’s still some of the writer-director’s clumsy expository dialogue, which wafts from the Branagh character’s mouth like halitosis, and the usual questionable character motivations and holes in logic. But anything Dunkirk really needs to say, it says through characters’ reflexes and reactions, zipping bullets and heaving metal. Its more or less nameless heroes can’t see who they’re fighting and they can’t see what they’re fighting for—literally in both cases, but movies have a way of turning the literal into metaphors. Out of all the members of the large cast, only Rylance gets to give much of a performance, a touching portrayal of the archetypal can-do Briton. But like the movie protagonists of old, these soldiers, pilots, and duty-driven civilians are characterized entirely through their actions: They do, they go, they run, they circle back because they know something is there. In war as in everything else.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details we can’t reveal in this review, visit Dunkirk’s Spoiler Space.