Film Review: Dunkirk

by Chris Piper on July 21, 2017

Dunkirk: powerful and memorable

Soldiers await rescue.

In Christopher Nolan’s astonishing new film Dunkirk, we follow a major battle early in World War II through the struggles of a number of soldiers, sailors, and airmen as they attempt a massive retreat from France across the English channel in the face of constant German attacks. Though the events of that tragic summer week in 1940 are well known, what’s not known, and what is the basis of the film’s significant triumph, are the fates of the individuals who are just trying to survive long enough to get home.

The film portrays the evacuation of Dunkirk, but stubbornly refuses to present maps or descriptions or any conventions of military history. Instead it gives us the briefest of context, only that many men awaited rescue on a beach in France with “the enemy” closing in. This setup alone, however, wouldn’t sustain an entire film, so Nolan uses it to present a version of reality as a series of disjointed yet significant moments in which characters must make split-second decisions with very little forethought or deliberation, the results of which affect the individuals, their units, even everyone involved in the battle. Nolan’s preoccupation is the humanity with which we individuals deal with significant moments no matter the context, and he gives us a taut, exhausting one hundred and seven minute film that is emotionally draining, and artistically exhilarating.

This preoccupation first becomes apparent as we are introduced to the beach from which the men are attempting to flee. We come upon it haphazardly as we follow Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who himself stumbles upon it while dodging German bullets. We see the fear in his face as he comes upon the hundreds of thousands of men trying to simply to go from here (France) to there (England).

Almost immediately air attacks begin, and Nolan takes pains to show us the German Stuka dive bombers zeroing in on the kill from the perspective of someone on a pier, looking up, helpless to run, wondering if the bomb about to fall will kill him or the man next to him.

Throughout his films, Nolan has established extensive environments of despair. Guy Pearce’s Leonard in Memento is tormented both by his girlfriend’s murder and his nonexistent memory, and is but a half-step ahead of total despair. The Gotham of the Batman trilogy, though a modern metropolis, is helpless in the grip of super villains and corruption. The entire Earth of Interstellar is inexorably dying of climate change. In Dunkirk, despair resides in each of the four hundred thousand individuals caught between their human impulse to flee, and their duty to stay and do their part in an orderly retreat.

Spitfires roar over the Moonstone.

Who will save these desperate men? As in most of Nolan’s films, salvation is at hand, but exacts its toll. Batman becomes arguably as corrupt as his rivals. Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper loses everything he loves. In Dunkirk, there is no one man bringing rescue, only a number of individuals, acting independently, whose actions taken collectively stitch together a messy but still effective rescue.

We meet the first of these in Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) captain of the weekend yacht Moonstone. He answers the call to create a rescue armada of civilian boats, and casts off with his son (his son!) Peter (Tom Glynn-Carny) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan). We next shift to the air and three Spitfire pilots, led by Collins (Jack Lowden), and Farrier (Tom Hardy). As they wing their way eastward, we learn that they’ll have less than an hour of fighting time over the beach.

Once set in motion, these characters and plot lines will seemingly play themselves out in predictable ways, and in some ways they do. But Nolan now has his otherworldly environment – the altered reality of a battle bordered by the French beach and English fishing towns on either end, and the air and sea of the English channel between – to cleverly breakdown our expectations and present us with a time-altered world of anticipation, fear, extreme horror, horrific death, and occasional triumph.

A nagging irritant in most Nolan films resides in the propensity of characters to expend pages of dialog explaining some idea or other. Portions of Inception feel like they’d be better given to us as homework before the film, to help us better understand the idea of implanting ideas in someone’s dreams. And in Interstellar we are treated to long stretches where the likes of McConaughy, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain gamely make runs at explaining wormholes, black holes, and tesseracts. Nolan has struggled to fight through the science and the ideas to get to their driving force – powerful human emotions and primal human feelings.

In Dunkirk, he simply shows us his ideas, and lets us feel their power. Granted the ideas are relatively simple, but that simplicity drives their impact, and nearly pulls off the perfect fusion of cinematic ideas and dramatic emotions.

Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) oversees the evacuation.

As the evacuation progresses on land, sea, and in the air, an Allied minesweeper comes under attack from a German bomber. As luck would have it, the Moonstone is close enough to witness the attack. Nolan could have played the scene a number of ways, but has set up the events leading up to and just after the attack in such a way that he can dive into and out of them over and over, from the perspectives of different participants at different times, not so much to elaborate plot or reveal character as to present us with a collage of moments in which compromised decisions must be made, and which have momentous consequences for everyone from the pilot of the boat to the pilot of the German bomber. We quickly accept that this altered reality of a battle scrambles those conventions that we take for granted, like time, and space, and the way that individuals interact. He manages to turn the battle into a metaphor for how easily events can completely alter the reality we so blithely trust. And this is just one encounter that Nolan presents this way. He applies this stunning technique to a handful of other encounters, and the overall result is profoundly disorienting.

The acclaimed director and former WW II rifleman Sam Fuller was once asked how one could achieve a cinematic realism akin to combat. He answered famously that the only way would be to have theater employees fire at theater goers as they tried to hide or flee the theater. That is to say that no combat film can equal actually being in combat. I fear many who will see Dunkirk will attempt to interpret Nolan’s time scrambling technique as an attempt to recreate something like the alternate sense of time recounted by many veterans of combat. This misses the point. If taken with his other films that also explore the nature of time, Dunkirk gives us thus far the most elegantly realized exploration.

The film also features other poignant, if more conventional moments. My favorite single shot is not of the magnificent Spitfire banking in the afternoon light, or lines of insectoid men scurrying on a massive beach, but of the face of English Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). Actually, we don’t even get to see his entire face, as his eyes are obscured by enormous binoculars. But his downturned mouth ever so slowly lifts to a smile as he sees the sea horizon fill with civilian boats. Kudos also to Cillian Murphy, who plays a nameless victim of a torpedoed rescue boat, and falls from leader to little more than an animal, and reemerges with mostly human qualities by film’s end.

Go see Dunkirk not as a war film or a film about the triumph of the will to survive, though it is those things. See it instead because it’s that rare work that combines ideas and emotions in a clever way that still is viscerally intense, and tragically touching, thought-provoking and ultimately very satisfying.


Dunkirk opens today in Bay Area theaters.


Chris Piper

Regardless of the age, Chris Piper thinks that a finely-crafted script, brought to life by willing actors guided by a sure-handed director, supported by a committed production and post-production team, for the benefit of us all, is just about the coolest thing ever.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Achal July 25, 2017 at 10:25 am

If it would have been any person other than Nolan, the film wouldn’t had got so much attention!


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