Christopher Nolan (2017)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

Christopher Nolan has explored everything from the interior of the psyche in Inception to the far reaches of the galaxy in Interstellar, to the dark knight of the soul in his Batman trilogy, but for me his most remarkable and fascinating film is Memento, a film that disrupts the linear narrative and tells its story in two different timelines that forces the viewer into a constant re-examination of the events portrayed. But that experiment turns out to be just a dress rehearsal for his newest film, Dunkirk, which is without question his most impressive achievement to date.

The vast majority of Americans will be unfamiliar with the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk. Even if they’ve heard of the place and know that something important happened there, they may not be certain whether it happened in World War I or World War II. Brits probably are more likely to know something about it, but even for them it’s ancient history these days. And the film doesn’t really help you out much. You’re kind of thrown into the action with some of the young soldiers on the beach, though you have Kenneth Branagh as Royal Navy Commander Bolton speaking to Mark D’Arcy as the army’s Colonel Winnant to give you occasional clues as to what’s going on from a broader military and political perspective, but even that is just a few crumbs of information.

Dunkirk is a French coastal town where, from May 26 to June 4, 1940, some 400,000 British and Allied troops were trapped against the sea after a complete military fiasco in which the advancing German armies had swept across the low countries into France. Surrounded on all sides by German troops, and attacked regularly by German fighter planes, the Allied army waited on the beach for ships to come to ferry them 26 miles across the channel home to England. As Bolton explains to the army, the harbor is shallow which makes it difficult to send destroyers in to pick up troops—and besides, Churchill doesn’t want to risk too many ships, or too many RAF planes for that matter, sure that he’s going to need them for the next battle—the battle for Britain itself.

Which might seem to us an unwise choice, and not much in the film gives a context for that decision. But remember: at this point in 1940, with France about to be overrun and the rest of Europe on its knees, England was considering surrender to the Nazi war machine. The United States would not enter the war for another year and a half, and Stalin had signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler. And that meant that Germany’s next step after Dunkirk was to bring the hammer down of England itself. Churchill, Bolton tells us, is hoping to rescue 35,000 of the 400,000 soldiers on the beach. The British expect, in other words, to lose more than 90 percent of the troops. But what people remember most about Dunkirk is the fact that ultimately more than 350,000 were rescued, largely through the efforts of 800 to 1,200 small boats—civilians’ fishing boats and leisure craft—that made the trip across the channel to pick soldiers off the shore and ferry them out to warships in the deeper part of the channel, or in some cases all the way back to Dover. It was a remarkable demonstration of the pluck and determination of the British citizenry. Ultimately, surprisingly, the military debacle was turned into a source of pride and was seen as a success, providing the impetus for Churchill’s famous “we shall fight on the beaches…” speech on June 4.

In a sense, the evacuation of Dunkirk was the opposite number of D-Day: At Dunkirk, Allied forces evacuated Europe; on D-Day they came back to stay—four long years later. And in some ways Dunkirk recalls that quintessential D-Day film, Saving Private Ryan, in the confused, up-close-and-personal feel that you get as a viewer with some of the gunfire and explosions in the film. But in the end, this is less of a war film than it is a farewell to arms, concentrating not on battle scenes but on getting those soldiers away from the battle. But it’s extremely difficult to tell the story of 400,000 men in one relatively brief (107 minute) film. And Nolan doesn’t try. Instead, he chooses to tell the story in a nonlinear narrative (a la Memento) from three different perspectives: One view is through the experiences of one lone, frightened British private named (what else?) Tommy (played by young newcomer Fionn Whitehead), who is just trying to get out of Dunkirk and go home by any means possible. A second focuses on Dawson (Oscar-winner Mark Rylance), the civilian skipper  of one of those small recreational craft (the “Moonstone”) commandeered in Dover to cross the channel and help ferry men from the beach. The third point of view is that of RAF pilot Farrier (played by a nearly unrecognizable Tom Hardy, disguised in a helmet that covers his face for the entire film), who gives an aerial perspective of the whole situation, while blasting at German warplanes bent on sinking as many Allied vessels as possible.

Nolan alternates between these three perspectives, but the narrative is more complicated than that. Each of the three perspectives is set in a different time frame as well. Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film when the graphics identify each story. The first, Tommy’s story, is called “The Mole” (a confusing term that refers to the concrete breakwater off the beach from which most troops were evacuated). This section is given the timeframe “one week.” Thus the story of Tommy, and the two companions he picks up—the reticent Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and the more talkative Alex (played convincingly by former One Direction member Harry Styles)—engage in one attempt after another to get off that beach. The second section, “The Sea,” follows Dawson, his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan), who hops aboard on a whim, as the three of them cross the channel to ferry men home. Their task is complicated when they pick up a shell-shocked survivor of a sunken lifeboat (played by Cillian Murphy, a veteran of Nolan’s Batman films as well as Inception), who insists he can’t go back to the beach. This part of the story, we are carefully told, has a timeframe of one day. The third timeline, “The Air,” lasts just one hour, and focuses on Farrier and two other spitfire pilots chasing German warplanes across the sky, Farrier trying to save as many soldiers as he can while fighting against time and a damaged fuel tank as well as the Luftwaffe.

Because of these three different timeframes, you can’t be surprised when you move from nighttime to daytime when the perspective shifts, and need to keep in mind that something in “The Mole” episode may be happening before something in “The Sea” timeline, even if the Sea-time episode is on the screen first—and that almost everything, no matter when it is shown, is occurring before that last hour when the planes are in “The Air.” So when Cillian Murphy is fished out of the water in the daytime in one scene, and a little later is on a lifeboat at night, telling Tommy and his friends there is no room, don’t be surprised. Just remember the timeline.

This triple perspective has the effect of forcing us to see the overwhelming experience of Dunkirk not as a simple story with a single narrative arc, but as the complex event that it in fact was. It also forces the viewer to be more actively involved in the process of the story, not unlike a postmodern novel.

In addition to the narrative technique, the film’s epic scope is also impressive, as Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography fills the screen with stunning images of the beach filled with its hundreds of thousands of soldiers lined up to await transport, or of the view from inside a spitfire chasing down a Nazi Messerschmitt. Hans Zimmer’s musical score is heavy, pounding and nerve-wracking, adding to the tension of every scene. There are no weak spots in the performances either, with Rylance, Murphy, Hardy, Branagh and Whitehead all turning in exemplary work. There is no doubt that Dunkirk will be in the running for various Oscars come February.

But Dunkirk is not perfect. There is little in the way of dialogue, which is fine, since the focus is mainly on action and spectacle, but what dialogue there is, is often unintelligible, either because Zimmer’s music is drowning it out, or because the British accents are thick and (as with most movies nowadays) nobody is enunciating very clearly, or, in the case of Hardy, the lines are muffled by a flight helmet covering the lower half of his face. This can be a bit annoying. Perhaps more importantly, the lack of context given for the events of the film extends to its characters as well. We know nothing at all about the lives of anyone involved. The characters exist for us only in this brief moment of time at the Dunkirk evacuation. We don’t know where they are from, whether they are married, whether they are doctors or ditch diggers in civilian life, nothing. As a result, we don’t feel close to any of the characters. We are held aloof from them. Maybe that is Nolan’ intent—each of the characters is just one of the 400,000 on the beach, and hence becomes an everyman figure. But doing that sacrifices intimacy.

You definitely should see Dunkirk. It is a high-quality film, and I give it three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.



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