Strength in numbers
Dunkirk re-creates dramatic 1940 rescue at sea
For most people, the most jarringly effective part of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is the film’s opening salvo, which followed the initial invasion of Normandy on D-Day. It threw viewers into the tumultuous, terrifying scene that met the first envoy of soldiers as the Germans laid waste to thousands of Allied troops with an armada of machine guns before the film kicks its main story off, thankfully pulling us back from the front lines in the process. Imagine, however, a film with a similar sort of intensity as that invasion scene, only from start to finish, immersing you in the chaotic horror of a full-blown retreat without giving you a chance to collect yourself.
We could call Christopher Nolan’s WWII film a suspense thriller, though that simple description hardly does it full justice. It puts us knee deep in the brine and blood of the French beach at Dunkirk, where, in 1940, hundreds of thousands of British, French and other Allied troops had been pushed back by the Germans, whose armies surrounded the area, making the Allies little more than target practice for the advancing Nazi tanks and Luftwaffe.
As the film opens, trapped as
they are, the men line up on the beach, hoping for transport off of this killing ground and across the channel back to safety (more than once, a British character squints across the channel and claims they can “almost see home” from where they stand), even as German fighters rip down from the skies, pelting them with carpet bombs, and U-boats submerge the British destroyers laden with evacuees before they can even properly exit the area.
Nolan divvies this crucial campaign into three separate but connected threads: There’s “The Mole,” which mostly follows the action from the ground over the course of a brutal week, as one young solider named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), having eluded a German sniper attack on the city streets, makes his way to the beach and joins up with another, mostly silent French soldier (Damien Bonnard). The two then attempt to make it onto an outgoing boat to save their necks, as a glowering British naval commander (Kenneth Branagh) tries to organize the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British troops.
The second thread, “The Sea,” taking place over a 24-hour period — and connecting with the first thread at various junctures — follows the British Navy’s emergency conscription of civilian and merchant vessels from British shores to travel across the channel to save as many soldiers as possible. One such volunteer, the taciturn Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), who refuses to give up his ship, instead heads out to sea with his teenage son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter’s friend, George (Barry Keoghan), to help anyway they can, including the eventual rescue of a shellshocked sole survivor (Cillian Murphy) of a U-boat attack, huddled alone on the sinking prow of his ship.
The third thread, “The Air,” covers a single hour — constituting the amount of fuel a Spitfire could hold for a fighter mission — enmeshed with the other two, as a trio of British fighter pilots, including Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), do battle with their German counterparts as the latter attempt to blow out of the water any straggling boats with the temerity to attempt escape.
The film then cross-edits from scene to scene, continuously cutting decisively from one tense moment to another without ever giving you a chance to catch your breath. Built into the connective tissue, beyond the dire situation itself, is the spiraling anxiety of the soundtrack, by longtime Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer, who incorporates the relentless click-clicking of a pocket watch into his compositions, adding immeasurably to the taut atmosphere of apprehension the director so skillfully crafts.
What this complex setup enables Nolan to do is directly immerse us in the constant dread and terror of such a war, where random details, such as where you stand below decks in a destroyer, or which rag-tag outfit you decide to join up with on the beach, can mean the difference between living through the day or being sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
We grow to recognize the faces of our protagonists soon enough, but as far as characters go, they are pretty much all in the same miserable arena. The film barely pauses long enough to give us a scant detail or two — Dawson’s older son, we learn, was in the RAF before being shot down — and, like a panicked soldier dropping all their gear before jumping in the water, the film remains suitably unencumbered and focused. Gone are the usual assortment of profoundly symbolic tropes (a favorite of Spielberg) and heavy-handed moral statements: Nolan isn’t trying to make an ethics-based treatise, he just wants you to feel the horror deep in your bones.
That such an evocatively lean film was made by Nolan, whose previous decade of work has mostly consisted of complex, self-important three-hour epic fantasias — think the Dark Knight series, Inception and Interstellar — is of particular surprise. Ever a gifted filmmaker, his previous tendency toward overlong and dour flights of fancy would suggest a far more egocentric filmmaker than the one who has brought us this powerful, spare experience. Given the standard monstrous, mega-million dollar budgets, and the resultant box office triumph of his previous films, Nolan is in a position virtually unique among a small cadre of Big Studio directors (along with Spielberg and James Cameron) of being able to make pretty much whatever he wants. Given that exalted power, the fact that he has chosen to make such a powerfully understated film is especially commendable, especially considering that it is being released wide in the full-out frenzy of the summer release season.
Make no mistake, despite the curtailed run time (a sleek 1 hour, 46 minutes), as chaotic as it may seem, it still bears the director’s meticulous attention to detail and technical mastery, which pays off over and over in many suitably distressing ways — in one particularly harrowing scene near the film’s climax, as a destroyer is hit and slumping down into the water, the camera is placed at sea level as a vertical swell engulfs the hapless soldiers stuck on the now upended deck. In another, we are stationed in the cockpit of a British Spitfire as it rushes over the waves below en route to a watery crash-landing. Many scenes hit with such visceral force you actually can feel the ache of impact, or the flashing terror as a sudden gusher of water overwhelms your senses.
The fact Dunkirk is considered one of Britain’s worst defeats — though Churchill brilliantly used the successful evacuation as a rallying call “We shall fight on the beaches …” — signifies Nolan’s approach to the material. This isn’t a melodramatic statement on the Nature of Man, or the Damage of War, it’s far more simple — and it must be said, quintessentially British — story about a bunch of unremarkable people bearing down and quietly doing their jobs, their stiff-upper-lipped resolve turning out to be the difference between the men being saved, the war eventually won and the German military overpowering all of western civilization.
Tommy (Fionn Whitehead, foreground, looking up) is a 19-year-old English private trying to escape the German forces and make it home in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is one English soldier among the nearly 400,000 Allied troops stranded on the beaches of France in May 1940 in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.