Dunkirk is a word that has come to mean both catastrophe and miracle, and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk similarly invites a balance of contrasting descriptions. It’s gripping, but it’s also relentless. The soundscape is thrilling to the point of being harrowing, with a Hans Zimmer score that is so intense that it might be called bombastic. As a whole, the film is so brilliantly realized it may nauseate you. It’s as if Nolan, recalling the opening 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, thought, “That level of intensity, except this time keep it up for an entire movie.”
As magnificently well crafted as Dunkirk is, it is a film destined to be respected more than it is loved, and given Nolan’s record — I credit him with five great movies — I call this a highly honorable achievement that nonetheless slightly disappoints. There have been many World War II films, and many of them are great. It may be the most covered topic in cinema history. For a filmmaker as inventive and allergic to cliché as Nolan, the challenge is to find a different way to do everything. Yet sometimes an old way is best.
In war movies, combat tends to be chatty — “Over the top, men!” in the earnest films, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” on the ironic side — so Nolan makes the bold choice to give almost no dialogue to his leading men, stranded soldiers in the eerie ghost town of Dunkirk, France, in 1940. Leaflets floating through the air tell the story to them, and us: The Germans have the British surrounded. Their backs are to the sea. Surrender and death seem to be the only two options.
To reduce the enormous scale of the event — some 400,000 men awaited evacuation and most got it, when crowdsourcing was invented — Nolan focuses on three human dramas within the carnage, one each on land, sea, and air. Nolan intercuts scenes told through the eyes of a single soldier, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a pleasure-boat owner (Mark Rylance) who independently decides to cross the English Channel to rescue as many troops as he can, and an RAF fighter pilot (Tom Hardy, who loves films in which his face is concealed by a mask).
Nolan begins in apocalyptic quiet, with silent soldiers aimless in the town, their languor ended by ferocious bursts of gunfire from an unseen enemy. Nolan sticks with these two choices throughout: We never get a good look at the face of any German, Whitehead utters only a few lines in the entire film. Nor does Nolan give us much in the way of exposition or character development: No flashbacks establish that, say, the pilot’s wife is pregnant, or that the skipper barely survived the Great War. No, we’re simply right there, in medias res. You might be able to fit all the dialogue in the film on 15 or 20 pages.
Because what is there to say? When we first see the beaches, there are enormous crowds of men in orderly lines facing out to sea. There’s no camaraderie, no mordant humor, just near-despair and the will to survive. One soldier takes off his equipment and simply hurls himself into the waves. Nearby three others watch, blankly.
This is all very much how Stanley Kubrick would have done it, albeit with an added ironic tang Nolan eschews, but Nolan, as Kubrick frequently did, resists sentiment to his cost. Just as a film about boredom shouldn’t actually be boring, a film about war that strays too close to what it must have felt like is almost too bleak to endure — even though we all know about the happy ending going in. Dunkirk is mostly a catalogue of misery that eagerly imagines even the incidental ways you can get killed in total war — for instance, if an enemy pilot crashes near you while you’re in the water and the flaming oil slick from his wreck is right over your head. Burn or drown: Pick one.
Amid the slaughter, we know so little about Nolan’s characters that it’s difficult to get attached to them, even the one who dies in the most unexpected and tragic way. Steven Spielberg cleared this hurdle in the opening minute of Saving Private Ryan: We have a history with Tom Hanks. We know and like him. When we see his hand tremble as he takes out his canteen, he and Spielberg have got us. Nolan, consciously rejecting the well-trodden path, chooses mostly little-known actors (Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Barry Keoghan, and the One Direction pop singer Harry Styles, who is largely unknown to anyone past 30). To the extent there is some glamorous movie-star charisma, it’s tightly limited to a naval officer played by Kenneth Branagh who sees all of his men off the beaches.
Patriotic declarations, too, are such war-movie staples that Nolan studiously avoids the usual approach, presenting perhaps the greatest speech of the 20th century in the least grandiose way imaginable. In my book, that makes the power of the words all the more effective, but so grueling is the journey upon which Nolan has taken us that we require more relief than he gives us — more payoff, as the studio suits would say, more catharsis, more (if you like) tear-jerking. Spielberg has become a less sentimental filmmaker as he has aged, but even now I don’t think he would dispute that the hope of being swept away by our emotions is why we go to the movies. The Battle of Dunkirk was, of course, merely an early chapter in an epic of bloodshed, and all celebration would have been muted by the fear, or rather expectation, of imminent invasion. In placing us in that moment Nolan has succeeded marvelously. Yet I would have swapped some of the film’s Kubrickian technical mastery for a bit more of Spielberg’s heart.