Film Review: Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan's ghostly and taut war story is his best film in years.
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For all Christopher Nolan’s storytelling and cinematic verve, his movies have always relied on a spark of the trickster, from Batman’s psychological warfare tactics to the cloak-and-mist sleight-of-hand of The Prestige and the amnesiac memory games of Memento, to serve as the dramatic linchpin. That’s one of the reasons the relatively straightforward Interstellar felt like something of a letdown. It’s also why it was a daring choice for Nolan to take on something that no A-list filmmaker, excepting maybe Spielberg or Zemeckis, would even try these days. By making a big and bold tentpole war movie in the mold of The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far, told about a battle or campaign and not a character-centered story using the battle as thrilling backdrop, Nolan left himself no escape hatch. The good news is that Dunkirk doesn’t need one.

Outside of the United Kingdom, the skin-of-their-teeth Allied evacuation from Dunkirk is mostly remembered from schoolbook history as an "if only" hinge moment in world affairs. After the Wehrmacht smashed through French and Belgian defenses in May 1940, the demoralized Allied armies were hurled against the beach in northern France. At Dunkirk, hundreds of thousands of soldiers waited to be killed or captured by Hitler’s panzer divisions. Without them, there would have been no army to stop a German invasion of the British Isles. Making the rescue even riskier, the British couldn’t afford to waste many ships or planes on the operation; those needed to be held back for the invasion. Filling the gap, a scratch civilian armada of yachts and pleasure boats sailed across the English Channel to bring their boys home.

But in Nolan’s ambitious and likely definitive telling, the heart of the matter does not lie with the frantic mobilizing to save the Allied armies. Nolan turns instead to the soldiers, airmen, sailors and civilians who at any given time are only barely aware of what they can see and hear. And often not even that. For this symphonic combat chaos—sometimes unnecessarily exacerbated by his tendency to muffle the minimal script under the unnerving sound design—Nolan threads together a spread of storylines. We follow men on the beach, in the sea, and in the air straining to keep the whole jury-rigged enterprise from collapsing in the face of incessant German strafing and shelling.

Officers like Kenneth Branagh’s naval commander work the logistics of getting soldiers down one impossibly narrow and exposed concrete breakwater into ships without panic ensuing. Spitfire pilots like Tom Hardy’s Farrier push their planes to the breaking point as the Luftwaffe bombs helpless ships packed with soldiers. “Weekend sailors” in waistcoats like Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson steer their unarmed boats past sinking ships towards the smoke-blackened beaches. Meanwhile, soldiers like the painfully young Tommy (Fionn Whitehead, in a searing if mostly silent breakout role) and a mostly unrecognizable boy-bander Harry Styles are tossed from frying pan into fire as one escape route after another is shut in their face.

Keeping true to the history of the battle, where on-the-fly problem-solving and casual heroism made a combustible mix with confusion and naked self-preservation, the characters rarely have any notion of the larger campaign around them. The audience isn’t given the reassurance of the larger picture also; no cutaways to Churchill glowering at maps in the Admiralty. All the characters know is that everything counts on either their getting back to England or helping other men do the same. Nolan plays to that sense of gut-coiling anxiety with tools like Hans Zimmer’s eerie and minimal score and keeping the Germans, referred to almost supernaturally as “the enemy,” unseen and at a distance. He also continually folds back the action in a series of riveting cross-cuts that work as both Hitchcockian pulse accelerators and a way to see each episode from multiple points of views.

Taken on their own, many of these episodes are indelibly beautiful or terrifying. In the former category are the opening scene, in which German propaganda leaflets flutter down like snow on baffled British troops, and the aerial dogfight sequences, where Hoyte Van Hoytema’s sweeping and swooping camerawork is something to behold. In the latter are the many claustrophobic moments where men cower helplessly under shrieking Stuka dive bombers or scramble out of sinking ships, their survival a matter of luck and chance, not skill or bravery.

Somewhere in between are moments like the one where we see how a shivering and shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) had been an implacably calm and heroic man just hours earlier. A jagged and bruising war movie, mostly bereft of the kind of heroic bonhomie one expects from such a story and generous towards characters whom other movies would have typed as cowardly, Dunkirk is both hopeful and rueful. It ends on an unexpected splash of sunlight, the whole massive campaign coming to an end on a literal wing and a prayer.

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