Note: I saw the film in non-IMAX 70mm projection.
Dunkirk is the rare kind of blockbuster granted to the rare occurrence of a clear and vaunted “auteur” that manages to find clear commercial success. Scorsese or Spielberg had these and now Nolan joins their ranks. A film that drips its budget and studio backing and effects work from every frame and yet takes its formal cues from masters of Art and Classical cinema and, of course, wears the concerns and abilities of its directors on its sleeve.
If Inception was Nolan’s calling card, a film that showed how his very specific clockwork robot filmmaking and spiraling narratives about confidence men and dead wives could be commercially populist, then Dunkirk is his opus. A film that, finally divorced from all his usual narratives and genres, gives him the chance to let his formal aesthetics and structure and filmmaking ability free.
Dunkirk is Nolan letting his filmmaking speak all the volumes it can, no dialogue, no tricks, just his narrative structures and his ability to stage filmmaking on a massive scale. It’s an immersive, breathtaking experience and one that it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off on quite so grand a scale.
Nolan chooses to tell the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation, after most of the fighting has stopped and as the British forces try to retreat from the French Harbor as the Germans push slowly forward and pick them off from the air. There are three narratives interwoven here, told non-linearly.
The Mole takes place over one week and follows Tommy (Fion Whitehead) as he tries to get on a boat back to Britain and escape the bombing in Dunkirk. The Sea takes place over one day as British civilian boats (our focus is on one vessel commanded by Mr. Dawson [Mark Rylance]) as they sail to Dunkirk to evacuate the soldiers. The Air takes place over one hour as a trio of the British Air Force (our focus is on a pilot named Farrier [Tom Hardy]) shoot down Luftwaffe as they advance towards the evacuation in Dunkirk.
While on its face this non-linear storytelling may seem like a simple extension of Nolan’s usual narrative tricks, there’s something that feels so much more vital than merely being impressive. Dunkirk is a film of experience, a “You Are There” strapping-in where the war isn’t happening in front of you, but around you. The airplanes scream and the bombs explode (this is a LOUD movie) and you feel the air leave your lungs as the characters drown in the sinking ship.
Nolan compresses and expands time to create just as much of that feeling. The waiting on the beach desperately hoping someone will come, giving a week gives the time for multiple attempts to cling to a chance of rescue. The day gives that difficulty and the way civilians could approach each instance in this war. The hour gives urgency and an ever-ticking clock up in the air.
Speaking of an ever-ticking clock, and as much as I’ve praised Nolan, Dunkirk is a film that reminds you of the efficacy of good collaborators. Hans Zimmer’s score, constructed around a ticking clock (see, brought that back around), is a score that embraces the terror of this war, blasting noise and pulling the strings to their limits, and allowing for the briefest moments of grace. Lee Smith’s editing is tight and propulsive and juggles the intersecting timelines and time frames impossibly well. And cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema may be the best pickup Nolan’s had, giving his film a more distinctive and dirty, shadowed look far from Nolan’s overly clean earlier work.
Dunkirk is a film that looks past its people, in a way. This is Nolan’s most human film, in a way that’s more successful than something like Interstellar. The emotion, the pathos, the connection to these men in this tribulation feels more organic, more drawn from what we see them go through than the story that’s told about them.
But it’s not about them. It’s not Man v. Man. The word Nazi is never said and a German is but once seen on screen. There’s only the dialogue that is necessary, only the struggle that feels real. The twist is incidental, the structural tricks have no explanation within the narrative itself based on the characters.
It’s about something bigger than them. It’s about war not as an individual glorious struggle, but as some terrifyingly mundane thing that just gets a bunch of people killed and doesn’t produce great men dying to make a name for themselves. Dunkirk is a film that gets that existential terror of war, how much you’re subsumed into the gears of a machine that grinds you up and spits you out on the other side for enemies vaguely defined and by people basically unseen. There’s a patriotism yes, but there’s no glory to Dunkirk.
The people aren’t defined because no one in war is. We glorify heroes to hope that war has a meaning, but Dunkirk shows how truly anonymous many of these people are, how much they’re pulled into a monster that doesn’t offer them glory, just the hope of one day leaving.
This isn’t to say that the performances aren’t worth anything. Dunkirk has a strong cast doing simple, clean, understated work. Rylance and Hardy’s skill is well-known and unsurprising, Rylance conveying a fundamental decency and Hardy doing wonders with just his eyes. The kids on the Beach, including the famous Harry Styles, get across the sorrow and difficulty and desperation.
But it’s not about them. It’s about that larger horror and the little graces you can find in them. The movie’s second-to-last shot is a beautiful grace note in the middle of it all, a bit of Tarkovsky in the middle of all of Nolan’s Bresson here.