As auteurs go, Christopher Nolan is a man of undeniable talent, but also one whose body of work inspires a peculiar range of reactions. His films — from the unforgettable (Memento) to the mindblowing (Inception) to the nearly unwatchable (Interstellar) — show a surprisingly consistent sensibility, even as they elicit wildly divergent results. In his latest release, Dunkirk (2017), he tries his hand at the war epic, and while the subject is unusual — perhaps the first war film to ever chronicle a retreat — the results are outstanding.
If the film has a protagonist, it’s Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a run-of-the-mill British soldier who barely escapes to the beaches of Dunkirk in the wake of the German blitzkrieg that tore through France, Belgium, and Holland in May 1940. With the Allied forces all but routed, hundreds of thousands of British and French troops are pinned with their backs against the English Channel, desperate for salvation. The isolated and terrified Tommy is also a resourceful survivalist, making him the metaphorical heart of the film, as he ricochets from one situation to the next, wanting nothing more than to get off the doomed beach. But with the Allies surrounded, the Luftwaffe strafing and bombing the exposed soldiers, and U-boats prowling the Channel, it looks like curtains for the British army — a turning point in the war that appears certain to break in the favor of Hitler and the Axis.
The fact that it didn’t is a miracle of history, and Nolan’s film is brilliantly orchestrated to illustrate just that — both by painting the truly dire circumstances facing the British, and shining a light on the bravery, resourcefulness, and sacrifice of the many men and women who risked it all to save so many British soldiers from the German onslaught. In order to depict such a massive undertaking, of course, more points of view are needed, so the film latches onto other characters, clearly designed to reflect the conflict’s heroism. Most notable are a pair of RAF fighter pilots (played matter-of-factly by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden, the latter of whom delivers the most amazing one-word line of dialogue in the film), and a civilian boatsman named Dawson (the superb Mark Rylance), who answers the Navy’s call to sail the channel and join the rescue effort. But while the overall message is one of inspiring fortitude, there’s plenty of realistic panic, cagey angling, and questionable survival ethics to cover the spectrum of responses to such a desperate turn of events.
The subject matter and the characters provide all the meat the story truly needs, but since this is Christopher Nolan, of course there are other elements with which to contend. Unsurprisingly, for example, Dunkirk is rife with technically accomplished spectacle: the action is gripping, especially the dizzying aerial combat, and superb visual storytelling does most of the heavy lifitng. Also, there’s intricate structural layering to the plot, which follows three temporally offset storylines proceeding simultaneously. This clever but perhaps unnecessary legerdemain leads to surprising narrative turns as the time-jumping threads converge at unexpected moments; it’s interesting, but I’m not convinced a linear take wouldn’t have been equally effective, given the inherent drama of the situation. Finally, there is Nolan’s increasingly strenuous deployment of sound, as another intrusive Hans Zimmer score does battle with overwhelming, muddy noisescapes. Mercifully, though, it’s not nearly as egregious as Interstellar’s audio mix. The disorienting wall of sound feels appropriate in the context of total war, and while it’s frustrating not to hear all the dialogue clearly, that actually situates the viewer more realistically in the moment. I’ll even consider Zimmer’s score a success in that I didn’t notice it nearly as often as usual.
But in the end, Dunkirk succeeds because it does such a compelling job of depicting this astonishing moment in history, one in which everything could have changed. Clearly, Nolan is awed by the people who lived through the hell of Dunkirk, and he infects the viewer with that awe, depicting the event’s terror, desperation, and bravery. War films walk a fine line between glorifying violence and condemning it, and in some ways this one is no exception. But unlike many, Dunkirk never loses sight of the barbarity, even as it celebrates the incredible stoicism of those who were forced to face up against it. An intense and unforgettable film.