by Ryan Fine
One of pop culture’s favorite directors has made his way back to the big screen, and the news is as inescapable as ever. Nearly a decade past The Dark Knight and the name Christopher Nolan has now become fully synonymous with grandiose production, ambitious inter-dimensional storylines, and a complete disregard for the most basic laws of time and physics. But the latest entry into his catalogue is his most surprising story yet: a relatively straightforward retelling of the Dunkirk evacuation of World War II. His first feature-length attempt at something that actually happened is not a perfect one, but for the most part, it pans out better than anticipated.
Full of character…
The most immediately stunning aspect of Dunkirk is its top-notch production value. This movie looks and sounds like a war zone. The colors are dull and muted; the Dunkirk beach is vast and hopeless; and every time a bomb or a gunshot goes off the sound is screeching and overwhelming. Despite a few minor moments where Hans Zimmer’s score inadvertently overpowers the dialogue, the ironically German composer’s contribution is reliably moody, serving as a barely noticeable undercurrent until it needs to be the main focus.
Even though Nolan insists on classifying this as a survival movie and not a war movie, it is clear that it takes place in the midst of a battle, and a losing battle at that. The very first scene shows a group of soldiers trying to make it through the streets of Dunkirk as the majority of them are mowed down by German soldiers. The grand prize for the one who survives? He gets to be trapped on an endless, desolate beach with half a million of his compatriots, most of whom are either burying their friends or praying to avoid an airstrike until they can board a boat back home.
As far as the content of the plot, this is a surprisingly conventional film by Nolan’s standards. However, this should not be confused for a typical movie from every angle. Those paying close attention will notice that Nolan’s favorite old trick of non-linear storytelling has returned for Dunkirk. The three major interweaving plot lines are told side by side despite all taking place at different time intervals: the “land” story takes place in the space one week, with the “sea” plot spanning one day, and “air” one hour. Old habits die hard, but this one is subtle enough to work well even in the context of a true story.
…but not so much characters
The most compelling storyline of this film is the one happening on the sea. On a privately owned boat off the English coast, the Dawson family comes across a survivor from a U-Boat attack and decides to take him along with them. Upon learning that the family intends on rescuing more soldiers from Dunkirk, the shell-shocked survivor (played by Nolan mainstay Cillian Murphy) tries to plead with them to turn around and go back to England. Watching this man slowly become desperate and unpredictable is a major emotional hook in a film that often comes across as cold and callous.
Sadly, the rest of the movie is fairly limited in its character development. The film includes great acting from Fionn Whitehead and Tom Hardy (along with a surprisingly solid performance from Harry Styles), but we never learn much about the background or motivations of even its most prominent characters. The British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is the closest thing the film has to a main character, but even he seems to exist mostly for the purpose of showing the audience what’s going on around him.
What makes up for this lack of character depth in some capacity is the extreme danger the soldiers and civilians are forced to confront. When a British Spitfire is taken down and stranded in the water, we are not concerned with how little we know about the pilot Collins. The claustrophobic way the scene is shot makes us feel like we are drowning in his place, and that’s more than enough to make us care.
One step forward, two steps back
After the opening shootout of the movie is finished and Tommy makes his way to the beach, he encounters a fellow British soldier named Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) who is burying someone on the beach. This scene is the first in a half hour of events that, while not entirely boring, seem to be setting the stage for something bigger and better to happen. The Dawson family leaves Britain for Dunkirk; the air squadron makes its first appearance; and various other plot points occur that are more important later than they are now. All of it is necessary, but it still leaves the viewer wondering…is anything ever going to happen?
However, once the film passes this hurdle, the tension holds a vice grip on the viewer, and it’s easy to forget that it was ever off to a slow start. The conflict between the Dawsons and their rescued U-Boat survivor escalates to unexpected heights; a major character is accused of being a German spy; and the Spitfire runs low on gas and communication signal. The movie does not start in a positive situation for our heroes by any means, but once it starts going downhill it doesn’t stop for a long time.
There is progress every so often, but nothing good ever happens in this movie without it being checked and balanced within the next few minutes by a terrible turn of events. There are a few moments of cheering, but they are generally not in response to something good happening so much as an avoidance of further disaster. Even Winston Churchill’s famous quote after the evacuation is finished is a reminder that “wars are not won by evacuations.” From beginning to end, Dunkirk is the story of a loss, and Nolan would not have us interpret it any other way.
Though it contains none of the visual trickery of 'Inception' or 'Interstellar', 'Dunkirk' is a creatively told story with its own unique set of merits. A surprise true story from a master of mind-bending fiction, this film does not sacrifice the nontraditional methods of storytelling that Christopher Nolan is known for. Although the characters are mostly placeholders and the story takes a little bit too long to get going, 'Dunkirk' is packed with enough tension and emotion to make it a worthwhile watch for anyone who's comfortable sitting firmly at the edge of their seat.