While we watch Dunkirk, though, we discover that the spectacle of war is not necessarily its defining characteristic. The real spectacle is more often found in the faces of the men embroiled in the central conflict, and in Hans Zimmer’s frantic score, which aurally imitates the ticking of a time bomb.
In Dunkirk, we’re imprisoned in a claustrophobic world wherein every probable chance at freedom, at escape, gives way to quicksand. The faces of the men who live through that reality, forever anguished and intermittently covered in saltwater, sand, or oil, summarize that dire truth. They just want to go home, progressively losing hope and dignity.
The movie, of course, covers the notorious Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. Amidst a relentless deluge of bullets and bombs, we watch helplessly as British, French, Belgian, and Canadian troops — totaling in about 400,000 — try to break free from the French commune on which they’ve been trapped by the German army.
We’re concerned with three intermingling storylines, all of which take place during different periods before the rescue. There is the landlocked drama covering a week, humanizing the seemingly impossible chances of a getaway by spotlighting the exploits of a trio of soldiers — Tommy (a startling, understated Fionn Whitehead), Alex (Harry Styles), and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard). There are also the sea bound troubles faced by mariner Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and his friend George (Barry Keoghan), who, in the day leading up to the evacuation, scour the ocean in Dawson’s leisure boat for potential survivors. And then there are pilots Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy), who populate the hour up to the liberation and who attempt to take down as many enemy aircrafts as heaven allows.
No absolute heroes inhabit Dunkirk, however — an Audie Murphy type, swooping in to save the day, is nowhere in sight. Uncertainty, and cynicism, prevails, and no one isn't victimized by the incident. Even when deliverance does come, we don’t exactly sigh a breath of relief. Judging from our leading character’s dirtied, numbed face as he departs on a crowded train at the film’s end, sitting across from a fellow soldier who lacks his sensitivity, he will not return home able to wallow in youthful optimism as he might have before.
For Nolan, Dunkirk prolongs his fondness for manipulating time (see 2000’s Memento or 2010’s Inception) but otherwise invigorates his habitual Kubrickian ambition. His most recent film, the divisive Interstellar (2014), worked with possibly the most fantastical setting of them all: outer space.
But Dunkirk, in spite of its monolithic staging, sees him coming back down to Earth. Here, he’s less infatuated with his own intellectual ideas and more intent on bringing a humanistic edge to an event we’ve clinically read about but never exactly emotionally understood. The movie only underlines the proclamations that Nolan’s one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation — and maybe even of all time. In wading into the waters of an unfamiliar genre and still managing to conquer it, Nolan emphasizes that, like Scorsese or Spielberg, there isn’t anything he can’t do.
Dunkirk’s utmost strength, though, is how tangible its sense of loss is. We might only experience this conflict through the eyes of a handful. But as we lose ourselves in retrospection, and as we consider that these events were experienced by hundreds of thousands of individuals, the movie violently unravels in its facility to affect us. We can imagine the aftermaths lived by some of these men upon their walking through their front doors once they return home. We can envision their inability to not be psychologically taunted by their previous traumas, the lights that go out in their hearts. The inexorably unhappy marriages that might someday come. The uneasy, and sometimes impossible, insinuations back into the real world. That the Dunkirk catastrophe took place at the beginning of the war magnifies its waste. So many more lives would be lost, destroyed. And at what cost? A-
1 Hr., 47 Mins.
Dunkirk July 25, 2017
hristopher Nolan’s World War II epic Dunkirk (2017) is colossal and expansive, reminiscent of other titanous, atmospherically boundless genre classics like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) or Apocalypse Now (1979). Yet it is also intimate and interminably raw, a piece of naked cinematic flesh exposed to the bitter cold.