Soldiers and civilians alike struggle to survive as the Allies attempt to evacuate them from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, where German forces have pinned them down.
I thought I was done with war movies. The genre has never been one of my favorites, primarily because it seems as though the film industry has done just about everything it can with it. There’s a certain tone, a certain aesthetic, a certain politics seemingly always in place, no matter who’s telling the story or to what end. It’s telling that my favorite war films tend to be the weird ones — the Apocalypse Nows of the genre. Of the rest, even the great ones leave me a bit cold — of course Saving Private Ryan is a good movie, but it just doesn’t overwhelm me.
None of this is to suggest that Dunkirk was not one of my most anticipated movies of the year; it absolutely was, especially after the rapturous early reviews. But even then, I went into the theater expecting that I was about to see an ordinary war movie — just a very, very good one.
I have never been so happy to be wrong.
The war movie genre is not dead — far from it — and there’s plenty that can be done with it, provided a filmmaker with vision and sufficient clout to realize it. Love him or hate him, we should have known that Christopher Nolan, our most mainstream structural experimentalist and eternal lover of puzzle box storytelling, backed by the fearlessness that comes with getting to tack “from the director of The Dark Knight” onto your trailers for the rest of your career, wouldn’t approach a project like this unless he had some sort of angle for it.
I have never seen a war movie quite like Dunkirk. It not only tests the boundaries of the genre but of mainstream filmmaking in general, challenging audience’s perceptions of what a movie can or should be. Its approach is almost experimental, but never alienating. It’s confident in the decisions it makes and doesn’t seem as though it intends to impress anyone by them.
It’s cinema as pure experience, the Mad Max: Fury Road of war movies. Truthfully, it may be even more stripped down on the narrative level. Dunkirk isn’t very plot-driven; it stays in more or less the same place for most of its run-time. It isn’t at all character-driven; there’s very little focus on the individuals at the heart of the action. It isn’t a procedural focused on the politics and the history, crafting a narrative around the sequence of events that brought about the events of Dunkirk in summer 1940.
Rather, the movie is a short but potent exercise in putting audiences there, on the ground, in the early days of World War II. It’s a war movie striving to share the experience of what it might be like to go to war, to be on the frontlines of history’s darkest hours, to navigate the terrifying, disorienting nightmare of battle. It starts after the conflict has begun and ends before it’s over. It puts you there, among these soldiers, on those bombed-out beaches. The enemy is a distant nightmare — never once does this movie let you see the Germans. You hear the horrifying scream of their planes as they zip by overhead and drop bombs; the camera takes you to the sand, positioning you right next to soldiers lying prone, able to do nothing but listen to the explosions and pray one isn’t about to happen on top of them. It puts you in the tangle of thousands of bodies pressing forward, striving to be among the lucky few to board the latest rescue boat — “lucky,” of course, being a relative term, since bombers arrive to sink the majority of those boats. The soldiers know they’re leaving one battlefield and entering another, and every moment’s piece is fraught with the tension of knowing, almost for a fact, that it’s about to be shattered. Nolan puts you belowdecks with them, allows you to feel the same sense of claustrophobia, and eventually entrapment, when something happens outside and water begins to rush in. The lack of identifiable characters almost doesn’t matter — humanity is the character here. Individuality is drained out as the collective consciousness of the soldier fades into the darkness of pure survival.
Nolan’s script only heightens the inevitability of disaster — it has very little point other than the inevitability of disaster. It isn’t about how one character’s choice begets another, how a situation develops and changes as people respond to it. The events it portrays are entirely beyond its characters’ capacity to control; they truly are waiting for a miracle. There’s nothing to be done — bring in another boat, load up some more soldiers, pray this is the one that makes it back home. What else can they do? No one grows, nothing changes. War only takes from the world.
Nolan tells the story out of order — but only rarely to emphasize the points at which the various threads connect. It’s more to show the indifference of time, the way that an hour of suffering is a day is a week is a month. The movie is divided into three segments — “The Mole,” “The Sea,” and “The Air.” The Mole concentrates on the soldiers trapped in Dunkirk and unfolds over an arduous, hellish week of warfare. The Sea covers one day’s time, focused on a particular boat of civilians among the makeshift fleet that sets out across the channel to evacuate soldiers (which is, for my money, the most compelling part of the historical story and, perhaps naturally, the strongest part of the movie). Lastly, The Air takes place over a single hour, tracking a trio of fighter pilots as they attempt to provide cover for the evacuating ships. These subplots play out concurrently, occasionally intersecting but not for the purpose of highlighting dramatic irony or explaining apparent holes in the timeline. Rather, it serves to stretch the three segments to equivalent length, to use the tension and conflict in each for emphasis on the way the events permanently affect the people who experienced them, regardless of where they were and for how long. The movie’s focus on the ordinary is what makes its portrayal of war so unsettling and disruptive — it isn’t about the heroes of the battle, the important people who do the important things. It’s about the soldiers, selected almost at random out of the crowd; the average family that answers the call and takes the boat out; a few pilots, the names of whom history will almost certainly forget. It’s a cast of everymen, subjected to ninety minutes of hell.
Nolan is the perfect director for this. Whether Dunkirk is his masterpiece remains to be seen, but it’s certainly his best-looking film, the one where he first demonstrates that he’s starting to figure out how to shoot action and is establishing a distinct style for everything else. Part of the reason I was so excited for Dunkirk is that it’s the type of movie every director should make — something outside their respective wheelhouses, but to which their sensibilities ought to apply seamlessly. Nolan could not have come out the other side of that process more spectacularly. His grim, chilly aesthetic is perfect for what might be the pinnacle of “war is hell” filmmaking. It’s so distant, so weary, so resigned; its own tension exhausts it and becomes the nagging anxiety that boils under the surface of its characters, men so consumed by fear that they barely remember a word beyond it. Nolan’s washed-out color scheme turns everything to death. The beach resembles a desert with no life to be seen beyond the soldiers shambling in long lines toward the dock. Meanwhile, the ocean roars and crashes, sounding all too much like the planes that screech by overhead. The soldiers are caught between desolation and violence; there is no rest to be found anywhere. Every frame is immaculate in its despair.
Nolan is almost Hitchcockian here, the way he strings you along for every second of insufferable tension. His movies have always been a little cold and distant from their characters; here, he appears to weaponize that tendency against his audience, his seeming indifference perfectly matching that of the bombers indiscriminately hammering away at the beach. Watching Dunkirk is the experience of struggling to defuse a bomb, the countdown clock in plain sight and ticking away.
There’s been a rush to declare Dunkirk Nolan’s best film. In terms of sheer craftsmanship, that may in fact be the case; in terms of the overall effect, however, it may be a touch premature. Competing with the likes of Inception and The Prestige; even now, swimming in the immediate post-movie hype, I’d go to bat for either of those before Dunkirk. Even so: Damn. What a film.