The Winston Churchill who delivered his gravely “We Shall Fight” peroration would have admired Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan’s fictional recreation of the deadly land and sea evacuation of stranded and outgunned British soldiers in May and June 1940 has the crispness, excellent sound design, and fastidiousness that are the director’s by now irritating hallmarks. Reviewing a film like Dunkirk presents a special challenge. Like a host who sticks to a menu announced weeks in advance, Nolan offers little to the imagination; audiences aren’t getting anything other than people suffering, in motion, covered in oil and blood, soaked to the bones. To watch Dunkirk is to feel blizkrieged. I left the theater exhausted and half deaf. Yet I recommend it.
Told in non-linear form, Dunkirk takes a while to figure out how it wants to proceed. A gaunt British private whom the credits say is named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) barely survives sniper fire in the streets of the Belgian city. On the beach where the evacuation is taking place he and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) steal a dead soldier’s clothes and worm their way to the salamandrine queue for boarding destroyers; Tommy is the “mole” mentioned in this chapter’s subhead. In the air, meanwhile, RAF forces in Spitfires led by a masked Tom Hardy burn through fuel as they shoot down German planes strafing the evacuees. But the true story of courage during the Battle of Dunkirk took place at sea: commandeered private ships cross the one hundred forty-mile stretch between the English coast and Belgium to pick up survivors. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his sons find a shellshocked specimen (Cillian Murphy), who in a frenzy knocks down son George hard enough to cause a severe concussion. Rather than turn around—there is an Oscar-ready discussion—Dawson orders surviving son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney, with floppy ginger hair) full steam ahead for Dunkirk.
I wrote at the top that Dunkirk is a technical achievement of the first order, and Nolan’s control over the material is like Stalin’s over the Red Army (he wrote a script by himself for the first time). But his grip and all that onscreen nobility mesh into an oppressive viewing experience, especially when Kenneth Branagh glowers at us. As piermaster Commander Bolton, he opens his mouth and mothballs tumble out; Nolan ravishes him in close-ups so that his jaw and moist-eyed glances at the English coast become emblems of courage (he looks like a whiskey ad). Better symbols are Tommy and Gibson, who don’t talk much because they’re scared shitless and planning their next moves, which Tommy is uncommonly good at—lucky about—making. Late in the picture while his mates munch on toast and jam as they think they’re headed home on a well-armed ship Tommy has the foresight to slip into a life preserver. Best is Rylance, in search of a quieter film.
Abetted by his production designers, Nolan fetishizes the “realistic” details that are the sine qua non of war films made after Saving Private Ryan: a soldier on the beach who calmly removes his helmet and, framed in long shot, walks into the sea, a suicide; a doomed companion of Tommy’s who claws for a cigarette butt rotting in an ashtray; foam collecting like sponges around the soldier’s legs. Bouquets to Hoyte van Hoytema, whose images have the clarity of daytime nightmares. These details matter and they don’t. In the same manner, Nolan’s pretzel twist of a time scheme attempts to juice up familiar heroics and acts of cunning. Hans Zimmer’s score—here the din of a hundred sawing violins, there a synthesized menace—is intermittently excellent; by the end, it was as pummeling as the rest of the film.
To call Dunkirk jingoistic elevates the intentions of propaganda, but remove the violence and Her Majesty’s Government in 1939 would have endorsed this film. Eschewing complexity for kinetics, Nolan validates every hagiographic account, including newspaper stories published hours after the Dunkirk farrago, one of which is enthusiastically read by one of the film’s main characters in its concluding moments (Nolan could have titled the film Why We Fought). Hollywood produces a surfeit of World War II movies because several generations have been weaned on the idea of the Third Reich as the apex in villainy; the myth that the global conflict was the twentieth century’s Good War persists too. These days even showing a Nazi is a waste of time; Nolan shows members of the Wehrmacht exactly once. Considering the level at which Nolan’s other depictions of evil operated, maybe it’s a good idea to show how a young scamp’s pluck, with a little help of a former One Directioner in the Tom Sawyer role, gets him through the Battle of Dunkirk. If Nolan had a sense of humor, perhaps we’d have had another Hope and Glory (Empire of the Sun is beyond him).
Nevertheless, Dunkirk stands as Nolan’s best film. He’s poured what he’s learned about movement and editing into its trim one hundred-four-minute running time. Fans love his hooey even when swollen to elephantine lengths (Inception, The Prestige), so it’s possible that the film’s terrific box office lasts just a weekend. What I hope it doesn’t augur is yet another slew of war pictures in which good men do bad things for which history will exonerate them.