Dunkirk is an instant classic – a tight, well-constructed war movie that makes audiences appreciate, and even feel, the sacrifices made by veterans of conflicts past. Key to this movie’s success is director Christopher Nolan, one of the best craftsmen in a medium where epic scale and scope have become routine.
Nolan is best-known for his “Dark Knight” Batman trilogy, along with the science fiction epics Inception and Interstellar. As good as those box office hits were, Nolan has no doubt found you don’t get much Oscar gold for genre pictures, no matter how well done. (Although the Academy expanded the number of nominations for Best Picture in part to criticism that The Dark Knight was unfairly overlooked.) You do, on the other hand, stand a good chance at Oscar recognition for inspirational historical drama, and that brings us to Dunkirk.
The evacuation of Dunkirk in fact marked a military disaster for the British in the early days of World War II, but it undoubtedly preserved England’s ability to fight another day. Some four hundred thousand troops were trapped on the beaches of France, with the German army and air force closing in. A massacre seemed inevitable. Getting those men home was a logistical master stroke that rallied the British civilian population.
Triptych story follows land, sea and air campaigns
Those who have seen Nolan’s early movie, Memento, or his more recent Interstellar, already know that Nolan likes playing with time and story structure. The sole credited screenwriter on Dunkirk, Nolan constructs his story as a triptych. Recognizing that the story took place on land, sea and in the air, he tells the story in three interwoven strands that actually take place over different lengths of time: land (one week), sea (one day) and air (one hour). Despite the epic scale, most of the sprawling story focuses on small groups of participants: privates on the beach, hoping for deliverance, a private citizen piloting his pleasure boat across the channel to pick up as many soldiers as he can, and a couple of Spitfire pilots, providing what meager air cover the RAF can risk.
The story lines are all fictitious, but based on the factual events of the evacuation of Dunkirk, and other than a little exaggerated derring-do in the aerial sequences, Nolan keeps his characters acting like real people, not two-dimensional, cardboard hero cutouts.
The advantages of large format film
The result is both condensed and complex, expansive and intimate. Dunkirk is big, make no mistake. Nolan shot the movie on large format film stocks: 65 millimeter, the medium of choice for the huge, road show epics of the fifties and sixties like Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, Ice Station Zebra, 2001: A Space Odyssey and IMAX, the biggest of the big. This was an unusual choice in this increasingly digital age, but dear Lord, is it justified by the results. Not only does film, particularly large format film, enhance detail, but it vastly enriches the texture of images, which is a massive advantage given Dunkirk’s minimalistic dialogue.
From the opening scene, Dunkirk makes us understood the danger the troops face, as German sharpshooters pick off a group of British soldiers mere yards from the beachhead. “We surround you,” reads an air-dropped leaflet that pretty much sums up the Allies’ position. Backed up to the sea, what remains of the British Expeditionary Force can practically see England, only 26 miles away, but it might as well be another planet. We follow much of this action through the eyes of a soldier played by Fionn Whitehead and billed as “Tommy,” though honestly this critic can’t remember actually hearing him addressed by name. In any event, Tommy, slim and handsome, looks as though he just graduated from high school, and serves as a vivid reminder that even the most morally defensible wars are fought by soldiers who aren’t far removed from childhood. Tommy makes a fine guide through the week long ordeal on the beach and eventually the evacuation ships.
We do see some officers on the beaches, particularly Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy, but the land scenes are primarily seen from a grunt’s eye view. Pop star Harry Styles, who makes his feature film acting debut, is perfectly serviceable in his small role, reportedly expanded by Nolan during production. Whether he’s on screen long enough to satisfy his legions of adolescent fans remains to be seen, but he more than holds his own in a movie that’s marked by fine acting.
On the sea, in some of the film’s most compelling and suspenseful sequences, a wonderfully understated Mark Rylance shines as a private citizen piloting his own pleasure craft to Dunkirk, along with his teen son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his son’s friend (Barry Keoghan) to bring as many soldiers as they can back to England. Their task is complicated when they rescue Nolan regular Cillian Murphy from a derelict ship. Murphy gives a heart-wringing performance as a shell-shocked soldier who is determined not to go back to Dunkirk.
In the air, the story largely revolves around an RAF flier played by Tom Hardy. Hardy apparently loves challenges, and he’s always up to them. Here, almost all of his screen time is in the confined space of a Spitfire cockpit, with most of his face covered by an oxygen mask most of the time and and he has nearly no dialogue. Okay, so he has no dialogue, no body language and pretty much only his eyes showing. And yes, he delivers one of the movie’s most memorable performances.
Propelled by pure craft
As is typical with Nolan movies, the action is propelled by state of the art special effects, many of them practical, thunderous sound and an unrelenting Hans Zimmer score. Nolan also uses real planes, where possible, and even a couple of actual aircraft on screen blow away the Star Warsy CGI antics relied on by Michael Bay for Pearl Harbor. Relying on his large format cinematography and perfect editing, the action is impressively, even traumatically immersive. No 3D needed.
And as Daniel Day-Lewis never got to deliver the Gettysburg Address in Spielberg’s Lincoln, we do not hear Churchill deliver his immortal “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech – it is read from a newspaper by a young soldier. (Ironically, Gary Oldman’s rendition of the speech from the upcoming movie Darkest Hour is being heard in trailers being shown before Dunkirk.) We don’t get political oratory like that anymore – and if Nolan is making a point about the state of modern politics, he keeps it subtle. The fact that facism is a bad thing is taken more or less for granted.
Master class in craft of cinema serves the story
Dunkirk is certainly a master class in the craft of cinema, but the craft serves the story, and that story makes a strong statement about service, sacrifice and morality. One of the movie’s most compelling images is that of a burning plane, a plane set on fire by its pilot, who refuses to let it fall into enemy hands even as he himself is about to captured. As you stare at those flames blazing on a twilit beach, I defy you not to be reminded, if only for a second, that the fight against facism never really ended.