Air, sea, land; a week, a day, an hour. These are the foundation for the cinematic triptych the British film director Christopher Nolan created in “Dunkirk.” It is based on a seminal event of World War II and the 20th century as a whole: the British evacuation of hundreds of thousands of stranded soldiers from the beach of the northern French town of Dunkirk in May 1940.
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The mix of space and time has always been at the fore for Nolan, most clearly in “Memento” and “Inception.” In “Dunkirk” he addresses these questions in a bold, sophisticated manner, without the showiness of his earlier work. In its exposition of the story it tells, at least, “Dunkirk” stands out as an attempt to deliver a work of art on the playing field of the summer blockbuster.
The narrative structure of the movie, for which Nolan also wrote the screenplay, allows the filmmaker to present the events as both history and myth. This combination has always been part of American moviemaking, but Nolan lends it new force.
The Germans are an unseen, lurking presence, absent even from the title card that provides the movie’s historical context. We do not see, for example, the discussions in London about the need for the evacuation, its dangers and implications for the war and for military morale. There is no central hero, even if one soldier (Fionn Whitehead) gets more attention and screen time than the others. Even though he stands out, we never even learn his name. He is one among many, anxious and desperate, who seeks only to survive, and that is all we need to know about him.
The film relates three concurrent narrative arcs of different lengths. The first, set on the beach and in Dunkirk, depicts the week-long anticipation of the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Nolan devotes a few minutes to a distant depiction of masses of soldiers crowding the beach, relating to the fact that only British, not French, soldiers were allowed to board the ships. This produces one of the film’s more conventionally dramatic scenes.
The second story, which takes place in the air and took about an hour in real life, focuses on the dogfights between a Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) and enemy aircraft that threaten the soldiers on the beach. The third story, whose characters are more detailed than the others in the film, takes place at sea over a day. This is the story of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), the owner of a small boat called “Moonstone.” He, like many other boat owners, set out for Dunkirk to help in the evacuation. He is joined by his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a boy named George (Barry Keoghan). During the journey they save a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy), the only survivor of a ship sunk by the Germans.
As screenwriter and as director, Nolan moves skillfully among the narrative threads set on land, sea and air in different time spheres. This molds the mythic essence of the historical event that the film documents. It is not documentation of the historical event that is the main aspect of the film, nor that it became a legend, although it touches on them. Rather, it is the depiction of an existential situation based on a military defeat. The defeat is the foundation on which Nolan builds this existential situation, which incorporates fear and courage, the desperate desire to survive and admirable resourcefulness in saving those desperate men.
Winston Churchill, who is not seen in the film, defined the evacuation after it was completed, and more than 300,000 British soldiers were repatriated, as a heroic act and a defeat in his speech, which is quoted in the film from a newspaper article that reported on it.
In other words, Nolan uses the story of the evacuation from Dunkirk as the symbolic foundation for the depiction of the existential situation the film seeks to present.
From this perspective, “Dunkirk” is very different from most war movies. The symbolic, existential dimension was also present in some of the better war movies, beginning with Lewis Milestone’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” in 1930 and on through David Lean’s “Bridge on the River Kwai” from 1957 (both won Oscars), and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), which earned Steven Spielberg an Oscar for best director. But I don’t remember another true war movie that uses a wartime event, real or imagined, as comprehensively symbolically as does this film. Perhaps only Terrence Malick’s 1998 masterpiece, “The Red Line.”
It also seems that of all the events of the last century, and especially World War II, the evacuation from Dunkirk, because of its character and its place in British consciousness and memory as a defeat and an act that shows the strength and unity of the country, is the most fitting event to serve as a foundation for the realization of Nolan’s vision.
Some viewers may be put off by the fact that the film doesn’t have a central hero and main plot, and has practically no dialogue, but that would be a mistake that would miss Nolan’s artistic objectives.
Unlike other action pictures, which make every effort to sweep us up into them, Nolan’s film demands that we come to it and sweep it into us. The effort is worthwhile. It isn’t hard, because Nolan is a virtuoso director, and “Dunkirk” is also a cinematic showcase, in which every scene is impressive in its own way. It is helped by Hoyte van Hoytema’s outstanding cinematography, which turns every scene, on land, sea and air, intimate or extravagant, into an impressive cinematic moment; the sound track, which moves from quietly threatening to surprising sounds of bombardment, is accompanied by bombastic but sophisticated music composed for the film by Hans Zimmer.
The film has expected moments, flickers of British heroism and patriotism and even one sentimental moment, which recalls the traditional, restrained character in which the British cinema, especially in the 1950s, portrayed Britain in World War II. None of these hurt the movie; they even integrate in the proper balance. This is a work that has so much to impress us with. It stands out much above popular cinematic products — and this is, in the end, a film that belongs to the popular cinema — is enough these days.