It looks like the big blockbuster of the summer is not a superhero or science fiction film, but, surprisingly, a movie set during World War II. Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan, concerns the plight of the British expeditionary force, some 400,000 men, trapped on the northern coast of France in May of 1940 after the sudden victory of Nazi Germany over the French. While the Germans harassed the troops with air power, the British military had to figure out a way to quickly get their men across the channel. Attempts to use battleships were stymied by air bombing and torpedoes, so the government sent out a call to the people of England to sail whatever private boats they had to Dunkirk and get as many troops to safety as they could.
The film assumes that the audience knows this historical context, and that’s a laudable act of faith. But I suspect many Americans might be unclear on the history, so I would suggest maybe looking up Dunkirk in Wikipedia before going to see the movie. Rather than portraying the overall military and political events, Nolan is focused on the horrific experience of warfare at Dunkirk, which he depicts with three narrative strands of different lengths. We follow a British soldier named Tommy, played by newcomer Fionn Whitehead, for a harrowing week in which he attempts to escape Dunkirk in the face of constant threats. This is intercut with the story of one day in the life of an English civilian, Mr. Dawson, played by Mark Rylance, who pilots his houseboat towards Dunkirk, along with his son and his son’s friend. The third story contains one hour of fierce air battles by a group of Spitfires, one of them commanded by Farrier, a fighter pilot played by Tom Hardy. The time structure is ingenious—the narrative strands take place at different points in the chronology, but gradually they converge into a single climactic time and place.
Nolan has become in recent years the top director of the mega-blockbuster, with his Dark Night series, Inception, and Interstellar. The technical achievement here is stunning, with battle effects that are bigger and more realistic than any I’ve seen before. But the unusual thing here is that he decided to make a war movie without a style of triumph or even heroism, even though there are extremely heroic acts in the film. Instead it’s all about the pain and terror of war. He hardly ever provides moments of calm or relief and that’s part of the style, as well as the relentless and corrosive Hans Zimmer score. I really think Nolan decided to frustrate the audience’s desire to be entertained in favor of a punishing depiction of suffering in battle, and he mustered the full scale of effects to pretty much pull it off.
Nolan still uses film instead of digital, and I really love that. I saw the film in 70 millimeter, which I can only describe as awesome. The sound is very loud, which sometimes is a bit much. I read that veterans of Dunkirk who saw the film say it’s louder than the actual battle. This director always goes for more, more, more, and I think this can be a drawback in general of his style. It’s not a film of nuance, for the most part, but of brutal power. Nevertheless, the soul-crushing effect of organized violence, the randomness and injustice of death, and the experience of pain and constant terror are conveyed masterfully. I also like that we are not given a note of triumph, but at most of gratitude and relief, and even that sparingly. This event was a victory only in the sense of escaping total disaster, and the film’s dark tone reflects that reality.
Dunkirk is spectacular, yet very serious. Prepare to be overwhelmed.