by Will Ross
If you were to concoct a movie concept for Christopher Nolan to direct that would play to his strengths and mitigate his weaknesses, you could certainly do far worse than Dunkirk, a war movie that rigorously adheres to the perspective of British men involved in one of the most triumphantly remembered wartime losses of any national memory. The concept is: to intercut between three separate stories of different time spans, one following those on the beach being evacuated for a week, one following a small boat of civilians who cast off from home to offer whatever help they can in rescuing the troops for a day, and one following a fighter pilot’s hour-long mission to interrupt the German air force’s attempts to strafe and bomb the fleeing British navy into oblivion; to follow numerous characters and plot strands without especially emphasizing their personalities or any kind of “arc”; to stage the entire film as though it were one almost never-ending suspense set piece, closing the noose throughout. Its divergences from that concept and its principles are the primary source of its failings, but it also shows signs that Nolan may be too enmeshed in the commercial sensibilities that have made this, his longtime dream project, a reality. It is precisely because Dunkirk is his best film in over a decade (a compliment, in my estimation, if a slight one) that it also lays out the clearest case yet that he may never again make something as uncompromising and dangerously unsatisfying as Memento.
Nonetheless, hopefully the successes here portend new directions for Nolan, as they are the result of creative choices that would be risky for anyone, one of which is that the tight focus on the evacuation distances this from the excitement of a combat film. He never puts German figures or faces on screen, giving no greater representation to them than their airplanes. Besides mostly eliminating combat from the proceedings, the unseen enemy goes some way towards Dunkirk's resemblance of a disaster movie, abstracting the threat of death into something as random as it is inevitable: bomb after bomb, bullet after bullet, torpedo after torpedo shreds across the beaches and escape ships, the desolate sands and seas withstanding the explosions and absorbing the corpses, unmarred and impassive, while soldiers die by the thousands waiting in line for ships that may never come. Early on, the film's single most striking shot literalizes this systematic yet arbitrary procession of death, as one soldier cowers in the sand in the foreground while we watch an out-of-focus line of men in the same position blasted by bombs, eradicated one by one as the sand explodes from the ground closer and closer to the camera — until it stops short.
It's an atmosphere thick with dread, and the film's commitment to its concept produces and holds that atmosphere for most of its running time. But two of the three stories break from that schema in a fashion that suggests Nolan may have been more curious about the effect of splitting the standard duties of conventional storytelling among different strands than he was about removing them altogether. The civilian boat, for instance, has a hard-nosed but passionate older man, identified only as Mr. Dawson, (Mark Rylance) taking the aid of two teenage boys, one his son (Tom Glynn-Carney), the other a ship hand (Barry Keoghan), as he takes his vessel across the Channel to France himself rather than letting the Royal Navy commandeer it. Rather than that sense of encroaching death, of catastrophe avoided by the narrowest of margins, their story relies more on psychodrama. That kind of material has never been Nolan’s strong suit, given that he tends to populate his films with characters who are too thinly drawn for interpersonal fireworks to register much beyond the surface, just one of many ways that broad strokes have been the auteur’s bread and butter, and details his achilles heel. When that psychodrama goes haywire, the aftermath is maudlin and unrevealing, the sort of pitying ode to sacrifice that more suggests an effort to satisfy an audience’s desire for heroes than an effort to say anything interesting about who they were, what they thought, and what their sacrifice may have signified beyond tearjerking sentiment. Was it right or responsible for Dawson to take his ship out himself, a prideful act that likely caused far more suffering than if he had let the Navy take it from him? It’s a fascinating question, naturally suggested by the story, so much so that it’s staggering that Dunkirk seems either unaware of it, or unwilling to address its moral complexity at the expense of its concluding nationalist strains.
In the pilot’s story, much the opposite problem takes hold, as Nolan reaches for pathos in a feather-light story and a character who barely registers as anything more than a mask and muffled speech (played, in what must be a rare moment of witty self-awareness for Nolan, by the film’s most famous actor Tom Hardy, who last worked with Nolan playing the infamously-masked and indecipherably-voiced Bane in The Dark Knight Rises). This story is at its best when it accepts that it is the most anonymous of the three, as a Spitfire pilot named Farrier hunts for Germans long after his fuel gauge is broken. The cracked glass over that gauge — a timer that demarcates how long Farrier has before he must land or die — is the most potent metaphor for the film’s fragmented treatment of time. As all three stories work towards a common point at different rates, the sense that time is out of everyone’s hands and that death could come at any time is omnipresent. Yet Farrier (and we) can’t help but keep glancing at the broken gauge.
Unfortunately, in order to motivate Farrier, he must have a mission, and it just so happens that his mission is to engage Germans in combat, the only prominent violation of the film’s otherwise well-guarded avoidance of definable antagonists. This might be an acceptable concession, except that Nolan is not particularly good at staging combat, be it fisticuffs, shootouts, or dogfights. Rather than any sense of logical decision-making or escalating spatial tension, his oppositional action scenes inevitably boil down to a series of events without a perceptible causal chain, i.e. this happens, then this happens, then this happens, without a “because” or “therefore” to give weight to the battle or meaning to the decisions. And so it goes when Farrier comes across a foe from the Luftwaffe: he swerves, fires, misses, swerves again, fires, misses, breaks chase, swings back, and finally gets a killshot, and there is little means to explain why one moment follows the next.
Corresponding to its dullness when taking the perspective of a hunter, Dunkirk’s best scenes are most always when it plants us in the boots of the hunted. The beach story — titled “The Mole” in ominous contrast to the other, plainer titles, “The Sea” and “The Air” — is genuinely nightmarish and surrealistically frightening in a way his fairly mechanical depiction of dreams in Inception never approached. “The Mole” is a feedback loop of failure, as we follow the mostly silent trials of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), the only survivor of a squad we see picked off in the film’s prologue. Tommy, it seems, is among the very last men to arrive at the evacuation zone, which puts him last in line for rescue. Seeing this, and realizing that explosions will rock the beach constantly until he leaves or dies, he tries again and again to escape the shoreline, meeting bureaucratic failure at best, catastrophic near-death (by drowning, burning, bombing, or even friendly bullets) at worst. Meanwhile, the film gives a surprising (and admirable) amount of screentime to British officers who don’t appear to have much more influence over their fate than anyone else stranded on the wrong side of the English Channel, primarily Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). Instead of the strategizing or rousing speeches an officer would typically deliver in a film like this, their time is spent either confirming that yes, their only possible option is the worst-case-scenario, or mournfully reflecting on their helplessness. (“You can almost see it,” Bolton says, looking over the water, “home.” But the horizon line is mercilessly straight and clear.) That Branagh gives what seems to be a terrific performance is a shame, because as long as Nolan insists on burying dialogue in his sound mixes, the performances in his films can scarcely do more but “seem to be.” Elsewhere, the sparseness of spoken word permits Nolan and regular sound designer Richard King to indulge on their thick, detailed sound designs without effectively muting important dialogue, but it's inexplicable that the dialogue issues persist, since they're the most universal and longstanding complaint about the technical elements of Nolan's films.
By default, then, Whitehead is best in show. I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment; his paucity of spoken lines allows his work to exist solely on his weathered, frightened face, unblighted by the overwhelming sound mix. The most impressive feat of Whitehead’s work here is the growing sense that Tommy knows that he can’t possibly survive this, and attempts escape only because there is no other choice but to swim into the water and die, as he grimly watches one man do. In a cast packed with unfamiliar faces but featuring a few bona fide stars, it’s telling that his — at once wide-eyed and despairing, accepting that each new escape is, at best, a distraction from the inevitable — is the most memorable.
So “The Mole” is handily the best part of Dunkirk’s three-pronged story, and yet I’m not sure that the film would be better with its other thirds excised (though I’m curious to see someone try with an inevitable fan edit). Perhaps the most obvious means in which Dunkirk appeals to Nolan’s gifts as a filmmaker is his structural ambition and rhythmic grandiosity. That tends to manifest in puzzle-narratives that take the moment the last puzzle piece clicks in as their emotional climax, and in intercutting that takes on an operatic intensity. While both of these habits and their merits are often scuttled by the sloppiness that tends to mar his screenplays, here they’re mercifully free of any gaping plot holes or laughable character turns. It's hard to overstate just how vertiginously magnetic Lee Smith’s editing is, be it the tightening corkscrew of its nested timelines, which converge on the climax of the evacuation with breathless certitude, or the raw, moment-to-moment decisions, as in the late scene where a German plane comes in for a bombing run of men on the beach, and Smith gives the overwhelming majority of screen time to the men who are about to be bombed, both extending the moment to thunderously huge proportions and giving the plane an almost cosmic frightfulness by keeping it a mostly unseen presence. The one and only edit I take issue with is the one that leads into the final shot, a use of a fade to black and hard cut so bizarre and disjointed that I keep wondering if something's gone over my head. I even suspected that my theater's projector may have suffered some sort of malfunction; whatever the case, the effect was far more jarring than any intent suggested by the material.
That this movie is replete with fantastic cutting is a particular boon, since the shots that make up the montage are, in and of themselves, underwhelming. How, exactly, the film has received its reputation for superlative visuals isn’t clear on the merits, though I’d wager an extensive marketing push for seeing it in an IMAX theater affected a lot of folks' impressions before they even reached their seats. Dunkirk makes use of a fairly extreme dichromatic palette, limiting its colours to fall within two hues. As the film begins, with its faded reds and cyans, one might assume that Nolan is replicating the look of an old, two-strip technicolor film. There are two major issues with this theory of Nolan’s motivation, and the first is anachronism: by 1940, the old red-and-blue process had been obsoleted by a more polychromatic three-strip technicolor, famously used the year before in The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.
The second issue is that Dunkirk’s governing hues change from scene to scene, and sometimes even from shot to shot. While the film starts with a two-strip look, its median colours are run-of-the-mill teal and orange, and it’s hard to think of any way that palette choice contributes to the sense of place or emotional impact, other than to make an ensemble war film look like any number of tentpole blockbusters made in the 2010s. Even more surprising, given the technical demands and pedigree involved, is how inconsistent it is: within a single scene, a character may step out of a boat’s interior with his face as orange as a carrot, then, after a single cutaway, his skin will have calmed into a less-intensified apricot. For a movie that takes such pains and pride in recreating the conditions of the Dunkirk disaster (the credits make frequent mention of production details like the use of actual boats that were present at the evacuation), made by a filmmaker who has been as loud a critic of digital filmmaking as any in the mainstream sphere, Dunkirk’s single most distinctive cinematographic stylization is often a distracting intrusion of a digital cliche into a bleak, meticulously drawn period setting.
Further evidencing Nolan’s simultaneous skill as a technician and blindness to the shortcomings of his technique is his customary insistence on swapping aspect ratios. Depending on the format you watch in, every time a scene cuts between 35mm and IMAX cameras, the aspect ratio changes along with it. This is particularly damaging since the film is cut and structured as one continuous suspense sequence, making the changes especially distracting. It may help matters that the vast majority of the film was shot with IMAX cameras, lessening the number of switches. But there’s one way in which the switches aren’t a big deal, but should be: Dunkirk is not well-framed enough for it to be clear whether or not it would look best at 1:43:1 or 2.20:1. Those are enormously different ratios for a movie to coexist within, and its a mixed blessing that the camerawork here just isn’t good enough to be particularly hurt by it. Whatever the case, Nolan’s reliably pedestrian sense of composition does not scream out to be seen in a premium format.
On the other hand, while Hans Zimmer has tended to be one of Nolan’s most stalwart liabilities, his score here makes a trend of his just-fine work in Interstellar. Played almost wall-to-wall and mostly free of significant dynamics, it recedes into a near-ambient effect as the film proceeds, more important for its tempo and general textual contributions to the sound design than as a distinctive musical voice. Among the worst traits of Zimmer’s fairly woeful career trajectory over the last decade has been that his music insists upon itself at the expense of the film it’s meant to complement, and this score mostly sidesteps that fault by focusing on his love of heavily digitized production and refraining from his annoyingly extreme dynamic shifts. That said, a brilliant or flawless score it most certainly is not, largely because, as usual, Zimmer seems incapable of any sort of effective musical development from the beginning of a movie until its end. The most common melodic motif, a nervous loop of methodically rising brass, repeats itself beyond what its simplistic bombast can sustain. Still, the score’s offerings help preserve the unrelenting sense of doom and tension, and the repetition does share a sort of thematic kinship with the miserable trial and error in “The Mole”.
It is, even with its short (for Nolan) running time of 106 minutes, a behemoth of a film, almost single-minded in intent and all the better for it. But while simplicity and even cliche don’t preclude the profound or the cathartic, the flag-waving finale and its incantation of Churchill’s iconic “never surrender” speech suggest that the film is uninterested in asking us to seriously grapple with its events in particular or war in general, instead evoking nothing more than a pat on the boys’ back for going through hell. It’s a shame that Dunkirk ultimately capitulates to such platitudes — succumbing to the mythic triumphalism long enshrined by Churchill’s famous invigorations — instead of offering us ideas or conclusions we could not have come to without stepping into the cinema. In fact, the ending works against everything that came before it. It’s as destructive to Dunkirk as the jingoistic shot of the American flag that ended Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was to that film. The denouement is a bizarre outgrowth, a betrayal of the nightmare that came before, and given that its from the same auteur who has suggested so bitingly throughout his career that humans are too often willing to accept a palatable dream over hard truths — in the last shot of Inception, in the shifting public personas of his "Dark Knight" trilogy, in the fog and self-doubt of Insomnia, in the illusions of The Prestige, and, most comprehensively and affectingly, in the manipulated amnesia of his still-best work Memento — it’s especially stinging that Dunkirk’s worst missteps are when it turns away from itself.