First, history: Dunkirk is a coastal town in France. In 1940, more than 400,000 allied forces comprising of British, French, Polish and Dutch soldiers, were pushed into Dunkirk and surrounded by Nazi Germany. Cut off from escape on land, the soldiers looked to the sea for rescue; Dover, England lay only 50 miles across the English Channel. But evacuation faced great odds, as German planes were able to drop bombs on the Navy cruisers sent to recover the men. While back home, British leaders considered a potential surrender to Germany, the soldiers at Dunkirk faced two options: death or further retreat.
Which means the story of Christopher Nolan’s new World War 2 epic, Dunkirk, is cataclysmic failure. Out of the clutches of failure, the men at Dunkirk looked for hope. And from the trenches of contradiction–of impending doom and unwarranted hope–Christopher Nolan has produced a superb war film. Dunkirk is thrilling, sophisticated cinema, exploring themes around loss, deliverance, and quiet heroism, that land powerfully today.
Dunkirk continues the upward swing of Christopher Nolan’s career. His films have been of varying quality, but for Hollywood’s artiest big-budget filmmaker, Nolan’s films have always been at the very least, interesting. If there’s a problem with his ouvre, it would be Nolan’s obsession with puzzle-box pictures that make for a thrilling real-time movie watching experience that dwindles over time. Nolan’s movies are based on elaborate systems, with complicated rules delivered to audiences through overlong exposition. His films rely upon information withheld from audiences that will, in the end, solve the puzzle in a satisfying, if too convenient, manner.
Gimmicks (that’s a not a bad word) have lived at the center of Nolan’s work: the reversal of time in Memento, The Prestige‘s high-stakes game of illusion vs. reality, the dream-in-a-dream-in-a-dream of Inception. Each of those films was a success, but none of them remain as a potent today as they when they were released. No puzzle is as rewarding the second time you solve it.
Nolan’s Dark Knight series breaks the rules-based system somewhat (though there are still far too many characters delivering tedious speeches explaining what will or won’t happen if Batman does or does not do this or that thing). But then, Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies remain his least interesting films. No matter how beloved or successful they are, they are not that interesting.
Interstellar was a step away from obsessive systematizing, for Nolan, and towards emotional storytelling. It was Nolan’s first truly great film, and his best work at the time. Interstellar still used complicated systems built into both the narrative and the cinematic techniques, but for the first time Nolan used those systems as tools for moving the audience through character development and story fulfillment, rather than as substitutes for such elements.
With Dunkirk, Nolan improves yet again, proving that the biggest non-franchise director in cinema remains, after 20 years, an artist on the ascendance.
Nolan’s systematic impulse is satisfied in Dunkirk with a simple triune structure. The story is told in three parts, introduced with title cards and timelines, representing where each story is in relation to the film’s concluding events. One follows the path of two soldiers on the beach at Dunkirk, desperate to find their way onto a departing boat. The second follows two pilots, flying across the English Channel to provide air cover to the British evacuation. And the third follows three men as they take their yacht to France, answering a call from the nation’s leaders to rescue their stranded soldiers.
The three part structure brings a narrative dynamism to Dunkirk, necessary given that history has already determined the fate of these men. Each story comes with a time-stamp, establishing that the events are close but not congruous, and the near-adjacent occurrences provide the Nolan structural playfulness without suffering from the problem of having to solve the puzzle with a gimmicky outcome (a very serious Nolan problem, overall).
The staggered timelines also serve Nolan’s incessant need to demand the audience’s attention, a need he has every right to claim given his role as director. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll get lost. But why wouldn’t you pay attention to cinema so beautiful?
What sets Dunkirk apart from Interstellar (and pretty much every other blockbuster film these days) is the movie’s understated story and complex, if quiet, themes. (I never thought I’d describe a Nolan film as understated). Nolan’s film does not pound its fists upon the table, spelling out moral lessons or cultural correlatives. Instead it looks at human experiences through the honest lens of a film camera, and finds uncertain outcomes, fear, and hope.
Hans Zimmer’s score thrusts and ticks and pushes the storylines towards a conclusion that is close at hand right from the opening scenes. Nolan’s decision as a writer to keep his action sequences simple and avoid heroes, villains and speeches, leaves Nolan the director time and space to maneuver in cinematically fresh and satisfying ways. Where Dark Knight and Inception kinetically engage with cuts and quips and high-speed action, Dunkirk lingers on, urgent music pulsing to the slow movements of a yacht in the open sea. Dunkirk’s efficiency removes any bloat (it’s a short blockbuster, hallelujah), and Nolan’s story structure leaves little room for unnecessarily over-serious scenes. And still, the film feels steady and patient.
All of these successes are owed to the best decision that Christopher Nolan made regarding this film: he chose the Battle of Dunkirk as his subject matter. War movies tread towards climaxes on the battlefield, where heroes and sacrifices are made amidst bombs, bullets, and chaos.
But Dunkirk is interested in another type of war story. Freed from the structure of heroes and villains and puzzle-box mysteries, Dunkirk finds much deeper and more elemental oppositions to explore. It’s apocalyptic and genesaic, old-fashioned and hypermodern, a heroic World War 2 story about the power of retreat. –Christopher Zumski Finke