Dunkirk (2017): Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cilian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy. Running Time: 106 minutes.
**minor spoilers for Dunkirk follow**
After his dalliance in the realm of sci-fi with his last film, the much-maligned Interstellar, Christopher Nolan has returned to far more grounded fare (both literally and figuratively) with Dunkirk. The title refers to the successful evacuation of most of the British army after it was pinned down on Dunkirk beach in early 1940, at a time in World War II when Hitler’s armies were enjoying near-perfect success running across most of Western Europe. It was immediately lionized by the British propaganda machine as a shining example of British virtue, and Churchill’s address to the British Parliament in the wake of the evacuation remains one of the most well-known and inspired bits of speechmaking in human history.
Christopher Nolan has been criticized for a lot of things in the past, including being too white-and-male heavy in his movies, dragging out scenes that make his films feel longer than they are, and relying on heady, pseudo-philosophical monologues by lead characters to convey the ideas or messages in his films. But while the white-maleness is still here in abundance (and is a knock against the film), he works at a far more concise and economical clip than he usually does; Dunkirk comes in just under two hours, but it’s all so packed that every part hits just the right notes before moving on. It’s also largely void of dialogue, especially in key action scenes, focusing on the sights and sounds of war and how masses of people instinctively react when their lives are all on the line. The end result is one of the most technically impressive cinematic experiences of the year, and easily ranks alongside Inception and The Dark Knight as one of the finest works of Nolan’s career.
It should be said upfront that this is not a historical procedural meant to provide an accurate understanding of how the actual events at Dunkirk played out. The familiar historical event ends up being nothing more than backdrop for Nolan to dig into the visceral, minute-to-minute experiences of trying to survive in war zone, and given what we know about PTSD and trauma and how it distorts one’s perception of time, taking this approach makes this the perfect fertile ground for Nolan’s twin obsessions with time and memory, and how the two can be changed or manipulated in our minds.
Loosely split into three parts, we simultaneously follow a handful of privates on the beach itself over the course of a week, a day-long trip to and from the beach by a private citizen and his sons to help in the rescue effort, and an hour-long flight to the fighting zone by RAF pilots assigned to fight off Luftwaffe bombers. Though each segment of the movie occupies a wholly different space of time, the film constantly cuts from one timeline to the next, jumping from day in the cockpit to night on the beach after a sub attack, and then back again. It’s probably best to arm yourself with this knowledge beforehand, not because the film does a poor job of piecing together the disparate parts (the three timelines eventually do converge in the final rescue sequence), but simply because, that way, you can get more out of the experience and better appreciate the artistry from the very beginning.
Given that another longstanding criticism of Nolan has been his inability to really grasp human emotions in his characters and dialogue, the lack of talking for much of the running time ends up being a major strength as well. Nolan has a masterful list of actors he draws on for each of his films, and his regulars Tom Hardy and Cilian Murphy (plus newcomers like Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, and Fionn Whitehead) are exactly the sort of performers who know how to deliver character and presence in a scene whether or not you give them anything to say.
This film has already been considerably lauded for its technical prowess as a big-budget, procedural war drama, and in this realm alone the film’s credentials are damn near impeachable. I expect this movie to rake in technical accolades come awards season, and the fact that this is a World War II movie also has me betting that Nolan just might finally get his long-awaited Best Director nomination.
Not that the film is above some common Nolan criticisms; while the all-maleness of the film’s cast is not so out of place given the historical setting, there has been blowback about its whiteness. Not only are all the speaking roles given over to white men, the only non-white actors even glimpsed are a handful of French African soldiers in an early scene. In particular, a number of people have called out the absence of regiments of Indian soldiers who were, in fact, present on the beaches and took part in the evacuation. There is also a particular part of Churchill’s famous speech (included in the movie) that is often glossed over in internet memes, a part where he insists that if the British Isles were to fall to Germany, Britain’s Imperial colonies around the world would “carry on the struggle” to liberate them. It sounds wonderful within the context of the speech (like I said, it IS inspired speechwriting), but whether or not the many populations and peoples forcefully subjugated by the British crown would in reality have so willingly laid down their lives under such circumstances is something very much up to debate, especially if they can’t be graced with a presence said Imperial power’s war movies.
Dunkirk certainly does give the impression at times of being a lionizing portrait of British courage and of the nobleness of its Empire, notwithstanding Nolan’s protestations that the film is apolitical. The music, swelling as the boats of patriotic private citizens appear on the horizon. A lone soldier, lying on his back and defiantly firing his rifle in the air at an incoming German plane before being blown to bits. A burning Spitfire framed by a setting sun. Tom Hardy. Just Tom Hardy.
All of this is there, but as I watched this film a second time, I couldn’t help but feel that it was undercutting the supposed glorification of these moments in interesting ways. This is most noticeable amongst the privates trapped on the beach. Although they are celebrated and lauded when they return home, we know exactly how desperate petty, selfish, and even downright savage they were when caught up in the machines of death. Throughout the film, selfishness, fear, and anger amongst the British are often shown to be just as deadly or dangerous as German bombs. A while after we see that one soldier firing his rifle at the planes, another soldier insists that the civilians coming in with their boats have no business being there because “they don’t even have any guns.” To which Mark Rylance rather pointedly asks the soldier if his rifle did him any good against the U-boat that sank his ship.
Even the direct quotation of Churchill’s speech at the end, with all its soaring rhetoric, is read, not with joy or bombast, but in the exhausted monotone of a shell-shocked soldier. He is interrupted by a fellow soldier whose not even paying attention, and when he’s done, after the camera has cut to black after the swelling-music-shot that would usually end this sort of film, we suddenly return to that soldier sitting in the train. He’s finished Churchill’s speech, glances up with a blank look in his eyes, then drops his head once more and turns the page.
That particular ending, more than anything else, has stuck with me, the same way that the final shot of Inception stuck with me. This is an excellent movie, one of the best of 2017 to date, but I can’t shake the feeling that many people both lauding and criticizing the film are missing some of its larger reflections on just how brutally unnecessary all this violence is, love of country or no. Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, Nolan has once again delivered a remarkable and memorable experience that absolutely deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, and then dissected to death afterwards.