Strength in num­bers

Dunkirk re-cre­ates dra­matic 1940 res­cue at sea

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - PIERS MARCHANT

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.

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