In war, no enemy is as fearsome as time.
With Dunkirk, writer/director Christopher Nolan stresses this truism through an intense, enveloping, and rattling cinematic experience truly unlike any you will have had before. Barely over 100 minutes long, it has the look, sweep, and sound of an epic. Unearthing the humanity of those who effectuated Churchill’s imperative (“We shall go on to the end…”), Dunkirk is the best film I have seen in years.
To the extent that Dunkirk is a war genre film, it’s hard to think of a convention it doesn’t brazenly defy. The enemy is everywhere and closing fast, yet never truly seen. There are no military objectives other than “get the hell out of here!” There is no gruesome or gory imagery of dead or mangled men that stands as a trademark of violence. It does not retread ground well covered by pulp-violent nobility endeavors like Saving Private Ryan, Hacksaw Ridge, or even Fury. And its dogfight sequences are quite the opposite of the fun to be had in an Iron Maiden music video. In Dunkirk, violence is not a point of juxtaposition shaping a dramatic character experience with war; violence is the audience’s shared experience of fear – a product of suspense in the cruel fabric of time.
As such, do not expect a “plot” so much as a through-line. Dunkirk is structured like the dream layer sequences in the final acts of Inception and given the relentlessly eventful pacing of Interstellar. It features a trio of perspectives: one on a mole (one week), one in the sea (one day), and one in the air (one hour), each interacting with the other.
Recall for a moment that in Inception, the time differential between layers of dreams was an integral part of the setting. Time was thematically relevant in the sense that it expressed how a deeply felt story, even if entirely fabricated, can give a searching person a lifetime’s worth of emotional catharsis and change him forever all in the span of an international flight, or even of a van falling from a bridge. Time could suspend a person within a dream.
Not so the case in Dunkirk. Here, the relativity of time is placed against the backdrop of war’s grittiest and hyper-realist nightmare where men were either sitting ducks, fish in a barrel, high and dry, or up the English Channel without a paddle. A gripping scene featuring a drowning pilot trying to bash open his cockpit with seconds left to escape contrasts with the anguish of sitting in the dark walls of a boat and waiting hours for the tide to carry it out to sea while German riflemen use the boat for target practice. The same human being (Cillian Murphy) is, at one time, a soaked and shell-shocked soldier shivering under a blanket, and, in another, a lifeboat captain calmly explaining that his boat can fit no more men. One disaster is foreshadowed early on with dispassionate distance in the aerial plotline, and then, when the other two plotlines catch up to it, overwhelms as the next centerpiece of the fight for survival.
Dunkirk is full of moments like this. As usual, its booming effects, Hans Zimmer’s score, and the engrossing cinematography are, in so many ways, the film’s true core characters. Gun shots and projectile impacts are startlingly loud from their suddenness, even when we in the audience are prepared for them. Never has a beach felt so long and endless as when characters are sprinting across it. Dealing with time even shapes the heroism of our protagonists. In the sea plotline, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance)’s heroism is established by his stoic determination to help the men at Dunkirk now – a stark contrast to the faceless naval high command which has effectively abandoned the evacuation efforts in preparation for “the next battle.” And in the aerial plotline, the heroism of the RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) is defined by his choice to persist with his duty after his fuel gauge malfunctions rendering him ignorant of how much time he has left to spend in the air.
Nolan’s auteur signature is abundant enough for anyone to guess that Dunkirk is his movie, but the film it reminds me of more than any other is actually not one of his. It’s Cloud Atlas – the Wachowski/Tykwer dimensional sextet narrative. I do not mean to suggest that they are the same – merely that they are similar in an attractive opposite kind of way. Both feature simultaneous plotlines that initially appear only tangentially related, and are occasionally difficult to track. Both are briskly edited through the juxtaposition of each plotline with the others at crucial moments to show their thematic interconnectivity. Both use time as a surface-level distinguishing characteristic of each plotline, and as a deeper mechanism to fuse them into a cathartic lesson about something universal in human nature. And human nature is, in both films, a fixed point. In Cloud Atlas, time relayed the universality of man’s thirst for freedom in defiance of the larger oppressive order.
But in Dunkirk, time relays the universality of man’s fear in the face of helplessness – a fear that betrays his professionalism and certitude.
The men at Dunkirk faced the kind of unrelenting terror that should humble anyone today. In the film, they are shot at, bombed, shot at more, torpedoed, drowned, bombed more, burned alive, dragged through oily water, and even bludgeoned by madness and claustrophobia. Survival is entirely random and there are no rules that govern it. Few words are spoken because that shared fear is the universal language of all men. And it is telling how every man in the film visibly aches in their damnedest efforts to repress their fears and maintain their composure. You cannot help but grip the armrests of your seat in fear for them.
It is clear from this film that Nolan himself fears what the men at Dunkirk feared, and that he loves them for enduring it. We have seen traces of this, albeit in a slightly different form, in the final act of Batman Begins and in the entire characterization of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Yet with the exception of that trilogy, all of Nolan’s films up to this point have featured at least one restless, emotionally compromised specialist trying to keep himself afloat by repressing a horrible truth within the darkest recesses of his mind. But here at Dunkirk, there is no internal puzzle that unlocks the world or fixes a person.
There is only the punishing constancy of time, and the anguish it causes all men.
The final line of text in the opening of Dunkirk was: “They needed a miracle.”
Near the end, the furious roar of the battle momentarily ceases and all that can be heard is the sound of a ticking watch. And it is thus made clear what the film believes a “miracle” to be. A miracle is a rare event in time where such elements and forces converge, resulting in men simply being able to survive that which they fear. And in that moment, he can close his eyes, content in knowing that survival is enough. A small victory like that can feel like the entire weight of the world has been lifted from your shoulders, something every man there so desperately needed. Those opening words constituted an affrighted prayer for one such statistically impossible event. It was a prayer vindicated by history, knowing in hindsight what the rest of Great Britain went through not long after the evacuation. And Dunkirk now joins the ranks of the greatest artistic expressions of that painful wartime reality.
This review comes after seeing Dunkirk twice, which itself probably should be a criticism. But even after seeing it once, you will, at the very least, have a new appreciation for just how terrifying the strafing planes were. If someone close to heart never returned from war, you will leave with a newfound, emotionally heavy appreciation for their sacrifice, as one teary-eyed woman in my 70mm screening did. That alone makes it a great film. And although Christopher Nolan has yet to make a purer distillation of his personal creative struggle than he did with The Prestige, Dunkirk is a new masterpiece.
It is a haunting historical portrait of war as constant, unappetizing horror, where humanity can do nothing else but be afraid and try to survive the ultimate enemy – time.