Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which recounts the evacuation of more than 300,000 Allied soldiers from a beach in Northern France in May and June of 1940, finds the director working in a different register. From Julien Allen at Reverse Shot:
For one thing, the events being dramatized in Dunkirk are not a leap of a storyteller's imagination, but recorded facts. Nolan's challenge is constricted by history rather than by science; and it is complicated, morally and artistically, by the need to do justice to real life events. For another, Nolan's obsession with exposition—a painful burden for his films to carry, particularly his highest concept pictures such as Inception and Interstellar—is nowhere to be seen. The story of these stranded men, sitting ducks on the barren beaches, is stripped down to a bare exercise in survival, in which the denial of exposition is demonstrative almost to the point of abstraction. The enemy is unseen; the background is loosely sketched out on brief intertitles at the start; the dialogue is minimal; the political and military implications are reserved only for the very end and even then, in light touch. Instead, Nolan deploys-from the very first shot-a relentless parade of expertly realized and only loosely connected suspense sequences. Each of these is intended to have the same effect, and when combined, a single overall effect: to suffocate the viewer with excitement.
The suspense sequences end up feeling so relentless as to be suffocating in part thanks to the film’s division into three parts, which cover the evacuation from different perspectives and over different lengths of time. Jonathan Romney describes them at Film Comment:
Nolan, who scripted, and editor Lee Smith create their own singular sense of order, one that is flagged up in the titles at the start of the film, although it takes a while for the viewer to quite grasp it. The action is organized in three interwoven timelines, running simultaneously. The action on the beach and the mole lasts a week, the action on sea one day, and the events in the air—focused on a flight of Spitfires, with pilots played by Hardy and Jack Lowden—covers only one hour. It's a way of layering the action and giving it three different intensities, although the results can be confusing. I wasn't originally sure why we kept jumping back from day to night, and only really got what was happening when, having met the shell-shocked Murphy character at sea, we suddenly saw him staunchly rallying his men on a ship at night. The contrast offers an acute insight into how the trauma of war can entirely change a person literally overnight.
That insight into the effect of war on an individual is, however, more the exception than the rule in Dunkirk. The lack of exposition and dialogue accompany (or perhaps originate with) a void of complexity in the film’s characters, who seem to be there mainly to stand in for the audience. At The New Yorker, Richard Brody goes so far as to propose that Dunkirk “may be the first V.R. movie,” and most critics (including Allen and Romney) seem content to accept the film on those terms, and to praise its formal achievements. Adam Nayman, writing at Cinema Scope, is less convinced:
The confidence with which Dunkirk has been made belies the confusion of its dramatic impulses, which are all over the place, albeit in the most disciplined, stiff-upper-lip manner imaginable. Nolan is an essentially Platonic filmmaker—he thinks in terms of absolute forms, and then fits his characters to their contours—and the talented actors asked to pantomime Cowardice, Heroism, Survival, and Witness (I think I just came up with a title for a New Order album) are forcibly subordinated to this grand design. So while it makes aesthetic sense that the young infantrymen whose experiences give the action its longest throughline are basically indistinguishable from one another (the most vivid is Fionn Whitehead's furtive, resourceful Tommy), while the middle-aged pater sailing to their rescue has a craggy nobility (courtesy of Mark Rylance, the new, saintly face of Event-Movie Decency), and the pilot hovering above them (Tom Hardy) is a fully masked deus ex machina, the arrangement of figures doesn't allow for much in the way of performance.
At Buzzfeed, Alison Willmore differs, suggesting that the deemphasis of performance may be the point:
Where other war movies tend to instinctively close in on personal stories, Dunkirk attempts to grapple, sometimes almost in the abstract, with what it means to be part of a collective, to be just one of a sea of uniformed bodies presented in battle. For the young men on the beach, played by Barnard, Styles, and Whitehead, it's a terrifying prospect, as they search for a way to not be in the part of the army that, they're sure, is set to be captured or killed. For Hardy up above and Rylance down on the water it's inspiring, urging them into feats of potential sacrifice for the greater good. If anything, that's what Dunkirk is about - what it means to go against all animal instincts of personal survival to risk your life for a community.
As Brody puts it, the result of this focus on collective purpose is, “in a weird and likely unintended way, a tribute to the virtue-inspiring power of war.” Such a tribute has a distinctly conservative ring, which is itself the subject of an unsparing (if amusing) polemic on Nolan’s politics by Jonathan Sturgeon at The Baffler (he calls Nolan “the last Tory”):
Why make Dunkirk? Ford Madox Ford wrote Parade's End, a British novel that considers the tenability of Toryism in the face of World War I, with the purpose of “obviating . . . all future wars.” A soldier, Ford lost his memory for a time after a shell exploded in his trench, yet the novel, based in part on his experience, contains almost no combat. Instead, it examines a society's march toward oblivion. And it considers oblivion's aftermath.Dunkirk is the inverse, a work about World War II that contains no before and no after, in any respect; it considers only the battle itself in the form of pure combat. But it also has no before or after because it is a period film that lacks all memory, an act of craven presentism that aims to appropriate as a readymade an industry of war sentimentalism. It is not the first time that Nolan has used the dying memories of old people the same way that Duchamp used a toilet: Interstellar lifts documentary footage from Ken Burns's The Dust Bowl to dress a fictional present. In both cases, Nolan rips a historical episode from its context for spectatorial gain-to accentuate the immediate experience.
Whether you believe that Dunkirk is a product of ideology or not, the immediate experience of watching it on a big screen is nonetheless powerful. Anthony Lane, in his review at The New Yorker, argues that what makes it so compelling is even simpler than it being a story of survival:
Nolan has described “Dunkirk” as less a war film than a survival film, but it’s even more basic than that, in the way it lures us in and keeps us hooked. It is about what we do—how we suffer and retort—when things happen to us, and when the happening grows far beyond our control. There is plenty of agency here, much of it valiant, not least in Farrier’s dogfights, but the focus is on the inflicted; aside from a few shadowy forms in the closing minutes, no Germans are visible at all. Look at the British who hide in the belly of a beached fishing boat, which unseen enemy troops are using for target practice. Look at the evacuees on the Mole, turning their backs as a bomb bursts nearby and being caught in the gust of spray; we don’t actually witness the explosion, any more than they do. We need to feel their fear.
A movie that causes us to feel the sense of fear (and, in turn, solidarity) aroused by war may well be propaganda, as Sturgeon posits, but it might also amount to a genuinely thoughtful effort to understand what it is like to exist with such little degree of control. That extraordinary control was seemingly exerted in the direction of the same is superficially ironic, but that contradiction is hardly unique to Dunkirk or Nolan, and in fact it might be the reason both are ultimately worth grappling with.
The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.