Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan, Cillian Murphy, James D'Arcy, Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden
MPAA Rating: (for intense war experience and some language)
Running Time: 1:46
Release Date: 7/21/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 20, 2017
Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is not so much a war story as it is an attempt to communicate the experience of war. Take the concept of "experience" as you will. Nolan certainly offers an array of meanings to that underlying idea.
It's about the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, after British and French soldiers were overrun by the German forces in that city in France—pushed back to the beach at the English Channel and surrounded on all sides. The operation to rescue those soldiers came from the sea—in order to transport them back to England—the air—to provide protection from German fighters and bombers—and the land—the trapped soldiers need to survive, so they could be rescued.
Nolan, who wrote and directed the film, takes the idea of experience in this context by providing three, separate stories from each of those perspectives. In the water is a private boat, piloted by a civilian man and crewed by the man's son and the son's friend. Such boats were commissioned by the Royal Navy to carry out the evacuation, since they were less obvious targets for German planes than the Navy's destroyers.
In the air is a pair of British fighter pilots, who search for and attempt to take down the German bombers attacking the few British ships that are making their way to Dunkirk. There aren't many planes or ships, because there's another battle coming. The defeat here signals a fight on the home front, which will require as many resources as are available—the more, the better.
On the land are about 400,000 soldiers, waiting on the beach for ships that don't seem to be coming or defending the beach from a German force that, at the film's start, are still moving toward them. Soon enough, the German strategy changes: There are no need for soldiers and tanks when the majority of their opponents are standing out in the open. All that's needed are some planes to pick them off with bullets or bombs. This section follows three young soldiers as they attempt to find a way off the beach, as well as an Army officer who must coordinate an evacuation with fewer and fewer means of accomplishing it.
There aren't really characters in these sections or within the story as a whole. They are, at most, archetypes, but most of them remain anonymous. In particular, the three soldiers on the beach—played by Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles—have faces that are almost indistinguishable, especially amidst the chaos and within the darkness of ships.
They exist separately from the other young men who are trapped here, hoping for rescue but expecting death, only because Nolan's camera is focused on them (That focus is terrifying in one shot, as a line of bombs approach one of the soldiers, who's prone on the ground but in the direct path of the explosions). In wide shots or when they're cramped together, waiting for the tide to come in, in the hold of beached boat, they simply become part of a desperate, fearful mass of young faces. That's their experience, and this must be the way they look to Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), who watches the slaughter of helpless men—when his eyes aren't trained across the Channel toward home.
The sense of anonymity continues in the sky, where the pilots (played by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) wear masks that cover most of each man's face. There's little dialogue through the film. The important things are communicated through looks and the sounds of combat. In the air section, the metallic rattling of the plane as it turns in the air is so jarring that it's as if the plane itself is protesting its pilot's steering. That Nolan, through the simple use of sound, can create as much tension as he does with a basic aerial maneuver should be an indication of how well he mounts the film's larger, more action-oriented setpieces.
The closest the film comes to actual characters here is on the private boat. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his young son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter's friend George (Barry Keoghan) have little to say, too, although Dawson does offer his motivation for risking his boat and his life to travel to Dunkirk. It was men his age who helped to cause all of this, and he won't let young men die because of the mistakes of his generation.
In this section, the silence comes from a "shell-shocked" soldier (played by Cillian Murphy), whom the private sailors rescue from a sunken ship (The sight of him sitting serenely on the upright stern of that ship is an absurd but haunting image). He barely talks, although, later in the film, we see him before he became traumatized. He's calmly giving orders to a lifeboat filled with men, whose rescue has been sunk, to return to the beach. On the boat, the beach is last place he wants to be.
We see this soldier in a previous state later in the film because Nolan, whose work is regularly founded on an intellectual core, is also playing with time as a component of this experience. The scenes on the beach take place over the course of a week. The scenes on the boat happen within a day, and the story in the air is set within the span of an hour. They aren't separate within the film, though. Nolan and editor Lee Smith cut between the three section as if they are all happening at one time. Our perspective on events and characters shift as the time and location change. The traumatized soldier is not the coward that Peter imagines him to be. As seen from the sky, a hand waving from a cockpit seems to signal one thing, until we're actually in the cockpit.
Far from confusing (because each section has a distinct look and momentum of its own), the conceit allows Nolan to intercut similar images and motifs, even though the events are happening, not only in different locations, but also at different times. There's a certain uniformity, then, in the imagery, say, of soldiers jumping from a sinking ship, which looks as if it is bleeding from the oil it's leaking. The scenes aren't happening simultaneously in Dunkirk, but they might as well be. Time may be relative, but war is a constant.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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