Magazine | August 28, 2017, Issue

On the Beach

Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk (Warner Bros.)

In this stupid time in which we live, there have been several controversies already about Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk—idiotic spats about whether its portrait of a defeated British army’s deliverance “celebrates maleness” while excluding women and minorities, and idle arguments about whether it should encourage the Resistance in their war on Trumpism or encourage alt-righters in their nostalgia for the Anglo-Saxon past.

Only one Dunkirk debate really matters, though: Is Nolan’s latest film his first true masterpiece, or another handsome, near-great effort that pleases his fans but leaves his critics unpersuaded?

The film seems partially addressed to those critics and their doubts. In his epic phase—the Batman trilogy, Inception, Interstellar—Nolan has made movies that are handsome, chilly, sprawling, and intensely masculine. They also have a tendency toward bloat, frequent third-act problems (both The Dark Knight and Interstellar are brilliant up until the final 30 minutes), and a clear difficulty in portraying both romance and femininity persuasively.

Dunkirk seems to take these failures to heart, and deals with them by, first, choosing a famous story in which all the important characters are men (you can’t botch the romance if there isn’t any), and second, by telling the story in a surprisingly condensed fashion, without any room for sag. This movie is many things, but above all it is fast: Over and out in under two hours, well under what you’d expect both from a contemporary summer blockbuster and a big film about World War II.

The leanness is achieved by cutting away most war-movie clichés. There are no scenes of platoon camaraderie, no statesmen making speeches or generals arguing over maps, and barely even a glimpse of the enemy—the words “Nazis” and “Germans” are barely heard at all. A little bit of basic exposition is delivered by Kenneth Branagh, on hand as Commander Bolton, a Royal Navy officer trying to keep order. But otherwise we’re just dropped into the action, following three characters whose names we barely catch—a soldier on the beach (Fionn Whitehead), a civilian piloting his boat across the Channel (Mark Rylance), and an RAF pilot in the skies above (Tom Hardy)—as their narratives converge.

Of course Nolan is still Nolan, even working fast and lean, so certain predictable elements are here: The dialogue is often inaudible (it’s a war zone, after all), Tom Hardy’s face is obscured for most of the film (by a fighter’s oxygen mask, this time, not Bane’s breathing apparatus), and the director plays tricks with time as he cuts back and forth between the characters. The story on the beach covers a week, the story on the boat a day, the story in the skies an hour, so in the first half of the movie they don’t really intersect, and then as it moves toward completion their timelines overlap and finally merge.

I knew about the time difference going in, so I don’t know how it plays if you don’t know; the movie doesn’t offer a lot of guidance (just brief title cards for each story at the beginning), but the stakes in each storyline are clear and the “Aha!” moments as they converge are pretty clear as well. And the device lends the film a constant momentum, a minute-by-minute urgency, that most war movies acquire only at the climax.

The critique of Nolan’s lean approach, leveled by various writers but with particular force by John Podhoretz at The Weekly Standard, is that narrowing the focus and shortening the story misses what made Dunkirk really matter. Nolan has made a story of survival and deliverance, but one that’s all about the men themselves, and only by implication about the civilizational stakes. There’s a good argument that the salvation of so many tens of thousands of soldiers was necessary for Churchill’s goal of fighting on, and so what was saved from that beach by destroyers and pleasure boats was not just the flower of young England, but all of European civilization. It was not just a miracle for the men, but one for the world—and a movie about the miracle therefore has an obligation to be bigger.

I don’t think this is right, only because while modern audiences might be ignorant of Dunkirk, they are not ignorant of the stakes of World War II; indeed the horror of Hitlerism, the scale of the Nazi threat, is perhaps the only piece of history that our end-of-history society still recalls in full. Literally every other movie about this era, from Saving Private Ryan to Schindler’s List to The Sound of Music to the endless run of Churchill appearances on screen (there’s another coming this fall, with Gary Oldman as the old man), does the work that Nolan’s critics find lacking in Dunkirk. Nolan can rely on them, and keep the focus on the beach.

But the beach itself is the one issue where I do agree with Podhoretz. The drama is perfect, but the scale is off: There are just not enough men to match the real-life numbers. When Branagh’s Bolton talks about the hundreds of thousands of soldiers awaiting evacuation, we see what looks more like five thousand, maybe ten. Likewise, in reality hundreds of small boats showed up for the rescue; when they arrive in the film, in an otherwise extraordinarily moving moment, we see what looks like dozens.

Nolan likes to isolate his characters—a line of patient men, a lonely soldier—against the sand and waves, in stoic and existential poses. This is lovely and part of the story, but it is not the whole of it. There were more crowds, more chaos (the famous Dunkirk tracking shot in Joe Wright’s otherwise forgettable Atonement shows a truth that Nolan doesn’t), and their absence does make Dunkirk and its stakes feel slightly smaller than they should.

The movie doesn’t need Churchill, and it may be remembered as Nolan’s masterpiece. But he should have hired more extras.

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