Dunkirk Review: History in Action
The outline of Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a clever twist on a familiar trilogy: land, sea, and air. Nolan parses a week of combat during the Second World War, from May 26 through June 4, 1940, and the effort to rescue British and French troops into those three components, and gives each a time frame (a week, a day, an hour, respectively) that corresponds to its speed. The movie thus leaps about in time, with each thread of action moving ahead fitfully, until the three threads unite in the movie’s evident conclusion, the successful retreat of more than three hundred thousand soldiers (about two-thirds of them British, one-third French) across the English Channel from Dunkirk, France, to Great Britain. (The movie is centered on British soldiers; the French are a brief but melodramatic afterthought.) The preservation of this fighting force was, of course, crucial for the preservation of Great Britain and the eventual outcome of the war; the retreat was the defeat that helped to secure victory.
Nolan’s construction turns a forward tread into a mosaic and breaks the sense of a unified dramatic arc into a series of observational anecdotes, of isolated deeds and lonely confrontations. He highlights individual acts of courage and heroism, dependent on infinitesimal details of choice and chance, on which the overall historic event depends. In separating three through-lines and fields of action, Nolan suggests the uncertainty, the indeterminacy, the quasi-metaphysical randomness, and the seemingly miraculous synergy of disparate events of which the outcome was comprised. The hand of pure chance weighs heavily in the opening scene, for instance, which features one British soldier—who has just escaped a heavy-machine-gun barrage in the streets of Dunkirk—reaching the beach, where thousands of other soldiers are lined up and waiting to board ships. Suddenly, a German bomber roars overhead; the soldiers drop to a crouch, bombs fall, and some soldiers are blown to oblivion, while others get up and reassemble, bearing stretchers carrying the fallen toward ships.
That bloodless opening scene is the first sign that “Dunkirk” is no “Saving Private Ryan”; Nolan suppresses the mutilations and agonies of war to focus on its basic moral horror. (There’s only one brief scene of excruciating physical horror, involving fire in the water.) “Dunkirk” is a movie of paradox; its very subject is character, the mettle of men (and almost all of the characters, and all of the principal ones, are male) who, faced with decisions that could mean life or death for themselves and others, master their emotions and act thoughtfully, responsibly, honorably, potentially self-sacrificingly for the good of a collective mission that they’re all aware of: to get back to Great Britain in order to defend it against a likely attack by Germany. Yet Nolan doesn’t delve into their character at all—doesn’t at all consider any personal traits that foster such bravery. The film is, rather, both literally and figuratively, a collection of war stories—a set of anecdotes that stay rigorously within the context of battle, that emphasize the courage and the severity, the existential moment of war (and do so with a portentous shadowing of telling details) while showing nothing (actually nothing) of the soldiers outside the realm of battle.
It has been a recent trend in movies to blank out characters—to filter out thoughts and emotions that render them as complex individuals rather than visual-shorthand types. In many cases (as in “Baby Driver”and “War Machine”), this seems less a directorial choice than a lack of artistic imagination. In Nolan’s case, it’s something of a surprise: for all his jigsaw scripting and visual bombast, Nolan is also a director of backstory. He’s passionate about it (as in “Inception”) as about little else. I’ve been wondering whether, in “Dunkirk,” Nolan feels morally inhibited about ascribing to real-life characters and situations the depth of imagination that he feels free to pour into fictional ones. Yet I think that the blankness of his characters is a directorial decision—not merely the mark but the essence of his overarching artistic strategy.
With “Dunkirk,” Nolan has made what may be the first V.R. movie—one that does its best to put viewers literally into the position of combatants and participants in the Dunkirk rescue, as if viewers were meant to fill in the blanks of the characters’ inner lives with their own and imagine themselves to be fighting the Second World War for the very preservation of Great Britain. It isn’t (I suppose) that Nolan can’t or won’t conceive of that generations’ mental and personal life, but that he’s sufficiently awed by their achievements and wants to place viewers’ little feet into our predecessors’ giant shoes—to let us clomp around in them and imagine the strength that went into even the slightest step under those circumstances. “Dunkirk” is, in that sense, a war movie with a daddy complex. (Nolan differs in this regard from Steven Spielberg, who faces his cinematic father issues by trying on the big shoes himself.)
Of course, there’s much else from those times that is almost impossible to imagine. Many people today would agree that there’s something distinctive and world-historic about the Second World War, which has something to do with what’s distinctive about the ideological differences between the two sides, between the values of the Allied powers and those of Nazism. But the Germans, let alone the Nazis, seem to have nothing to do with what Nolan’s characters are fighting for. The word “Nazi” is never heard; there’s no mention of Hitler; I don’t even think I heard the word “Germans” (once, someone refers to them by the British slang term “Jerries”). Nolan’s subject lies elsewhere, lies hidden—it’s his tribute to the collective purpose, the national unity, the total mobilization for a total war in which Britain’s very existence, the very existence of national culture, is at stake. Nolan achieves that paean to patriotic unity not by seeing and hearing it forged from multiplicity, but by excluding multiplicity, filtering out everything that isn’t already a part of it. In a weird and likely unintended way, the result is a tribute to the virtue-inspiring power of war.
The fastidiously severe images that are usually a watermark of Nolan’s willful artistry here give way to an anonymously practical recessiveness; rather than inflect his images, he lets the scale of his format, the 70mm. negative and the IMAX screen, do the bulk of the visual work. The next step in the movie’s immersive viewing might have been for cold water to wash along the aisles. Hans Zimmer’s absurdly overbearing music, which virtually bellows emotional commands at viewers, is matched by Nolan’s use of bass sounds—whether those of the music or of sound effects—that made the floor rumble and the seats shake at the IMAX screening I attended. The sensory overload of “Dunkirk” is also an anti-intellectual barrage that effaces the actual differences that were overcome with difficulty in pursuing the war—not just personal ones but also skepticism of bureaucracy, resentment of military discipline and hierarchy, social and political conflicts—the full spectrum of public discord that may have been muted in the midst of the war but that were detailed afterward by journalists, historians, and artists. (George Orwell’s wartime writings also give a sense of it.) “Dunkirk” seems, rather, like one of the self-censoring exhortations of wartime itself. Nolan’s sense of memory and of history is as flattened-out and untroubled as his sense of psychology and of character.
When it comes to watching movies, I’m format-agnostic. It’s a pleasure to see movies projected in public on the big screen. The air section of “Dunkirk,” in particular, is a visual wonder—less because Nolan’s direction of the sequences is distinctive than because solo flight in combat is irresistibly, sensuously fascinating to watch, and has been so since William Wellman’s “Wings” (1927) and Howard Hawks’s “The Dawn Patrol” and Howard Hughes’s “Hell’s Angels” (both from 1930)—and the expanse of sky is all the more engulfing, thrilling, terrifying on a screen the size of an apartment building. But it’s also a pleasure to watch movies, even visually daring movies, at home, on TV or even a computer, and pause to savor, freeze frames, back up, and watch scenes again, or even watch some parts backward. There are differences between the feelings aroused by different modes of viewing—but the differences are different from film to film, and a movie that seems good in one format will always seem so (if differently) in another. Except, perhaps, for “Dunkirk,” which, if it’s not seen in enveloping and engulfing and body-shaking scale, may be nothing at all.