Christopher Nolan has been one of the most important filmmakers of this era. Through his work with his Dark Knight Trilogy, as well as original projects including Interstellar and Inception, he has, time and again, accomplished the rare feat of making exciting yet surprisingly intellectually poignant blockbusters. In a time when so many feel that it is a one-or-the-other decision to make big-budget popcorn entertainment or thought-provoking art, it is no small thing that Nolan has repeatedly shown that it is possible to do both.
And with that in mind, his latest work, Dunkirk, is a unique change of pace for him. Nolan brings his usual big-budget scope and artistic discipline, but this is arguably his least commercial film ever. Abandoning the high-concept (and financially viable) action science fiction that has so dominated his work for the past decade, this time he gives movie goers a hard war film based on a real-life World War II battle, but not one where the Allies were the victors. Popcorn entertainment this is not.
For those who are unfamiliar, Dunkirk is a coastal city in France where, during World War II, the French and British Allies retreated from advancing German forces. Eventually, they became trapped on the beaches, hoping for a rescue, all the while being slowly picked off by bombers and gunfire. A rescue did eventually come in the form of small British civilian boats that sailed across the English Channel in order to save the soldiers.
The film consists of three interweaving stories surrounding this event. The first depicts British soldiers on the beach itself attempting multiple times to escape. The second centers on the crew of one of the many civilian boats that travels to carry soldiers back to England. The third shows a British fighter pilot as he attempts to bring down German bombers. Each of these three stories spans a different amount of time. The first one lasts a week, the second one a day, and the third an hour. Text on screen at the start of the film helps us understand the time frames for each story, while effective editing through the rest of the film helps us to keep things straight in terms of what is happening and when.
All three narratives feature interesting human characters, although Nolan chooses to keep them surprisingly quiet and distant for much of the film. There is not a great deal of dialogue, and what dialogue there is comes off as rather naturalistic and pithy. This is certainly a more realistic way to portray men who are trapped, tired, and frightened (and those who criticized Nolan’s earlier films for heavy-handed dialogue may rejoice in the comparative minimalism he opts for here). Concomitantly, there isn’t much in the way of character development in this film, but, again, that highlights the sense of realism. These are authentic-feeling snapshots of people during a chaotic time in history; not players in a cleverly constructed plot.
Additionally, I would argue that Nolan’s primary focus with this picture was less about his narrative — ambitious though it is considering how he interlocks three threads spanning different lengths of time — and more about capturing the atmosphere and mood of the event. Through stark shots of the war torn beach, the dirty and damaged depiction of the soldiers, and the harsh shrills of bombs and gunfire, Nolan superbly conveys the sense of isolation, somberness, and dread that was surely felt at Dunkirk. His depiction of the Germans also adds to the terror. We see their planes and hear their gunfire but never see any actual soldiers until the end, and even then they are out of focus. This sense of mystery concerning the enemy increases their threat in our minds. When, early in the film, the Germans drops flyers on to the allies showing that they are surrounded, we really do share in their fear, and we feel the tension as the German bombers approach the beach and the shock when bullets and bombs begin taking the Allied soldiers out.
Unfortunately, for as strong as the main thrust of the film is, as has been the case with his last couple of pictures, Nolan can’t quite manage to tie everything up neatly at the end. The editing that so carefully balanced the narrative for most of the film starts to feel sloppier and cause confusion, and despite the film’s seemingly intentional lack of focus on character work, Nolan nevertheless tries to follow through on and tie up what few threads there were at the tail end, but it doesn’t quite resolve in a satisfying way. The building blocks simply weren’t there.
Still, as a faithful depiction of what happened at Dunkirk, I would argue that this movie more than succeeds. Particularly for those who are less knowledgeable of this event than about others in World War II, it serves as a valuable history lesson and respectfully honors those who were a part of it. It also serves as evidence that Nolan can branch out as a filmmaker, working in different genres than what we normally associate him with while still bringing his trademark craftsmanship to deliver a good picture. As such, I look forward to whatever his next film will be.