Upon being thrown headlong into Christopher Nolan’s immersive wartime drama Dunkirk, it becomes obvious that it is hardly a narrative film like any of the director’s previous efforts because it has a singular objective set out.
It’s economical (shorter than many of most recent efforts) and the dialogue is sparse, sprinkled sparingly throughout his picture. After all, the main goal of this film is not so much to tell us a story — drawing up the lines as they might have been — but actually immersing us in that moment that was so crucial to British morale and ultimately the outcome of WWII.
As such, this is visual storytelling to the utmost degree and it comes off splendidly for the precise reason that film has always been a visual medium as much as we try and make it about dialogue. Because invariably dialogue is often used as a crutch while Nolan’s film relies almost solely on its images to tell its story and that’s a quality of filmmaking that is often lacking in the contemporary industry.
Backstories are all but left to the imagination and there’s immense power in that. Too often storytellers feel a need to spell everything out, providing all the perfect cookie cutter moments in order to hold the audience member’s hand so they comprehend it all. But has something as volatile as war ever been like that? I’m sure we can all answer with an emphatic “NO,” so why would a film be any different? Make people use their brains. Make them feel something viscerally. Leave them in the dark. Keep the outcomes ambiguous.
Likewise, there are no imagined interactions between the major figures at play whether Winston Churchill or Adolf Hitler. In fact, we never see a German’s face. We only see the results of their efforts to deter the British and cut off their escape route. As for Churchill, we never see the great English bulldog but his spirit wafts over the picture — certainly his words too — but it’s that spirit of resilience, that never say die attitude that speaks to his own character. That is enough.
Normally these type of decisions would signal a death wish but Nolan has been rewarded for his brazenness offering up a summer blockbuster that’s all but necessary. Because it tramples over much of the conventional wisdom that the industry has tried to impose on itself to reel in success. If there was any man to do it, Christopher Nolan certainly fits the bill.
There’s still very purposeful action playing out on three fronts. You have the soldiers actually stuck on the beach and in this case, we end up following a group of soldiers. Boys really. First, one who flees back to the beach after his compatriots are gunned down then joins with another boy to try and get aboard a battleship with a man on a stretcher. Finally, they get their chance only to get torpedoed out of the water. Treading in the oil-soaked ocean until someone can save them.
Then, there’s a trifecta of British Spitfires (led by Tom Hardy) traveling across the English Channel to provide coverage to their boys down below. Their exploits are documented with engrossing aerial shots that bring us right into their cockpits as they sit behind the controls looking to evade and vanquish their enemy.
Finally, we have the men of the home guard namely a father (Mark Rylance) and his two sons who answer the call to come to the aid of their young men stranded across the channel. You get the sense that they are riding into the valley of the shadow of death except that the valley of death is the sea and German U-Boats are waiting for them. Still, they push onward to rescue men coming by sea and by air. It too requires costly sacrifice.
Dunkirk’s soundtrack is magnified by ticking clocks and Hans Zimmer’s selection of screeching strings but it’s not necessarily developing the drama for drama’s sake. Again, there’s this underlying striving for authenticity.
One scene stands out in particular when the shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) asks if the boy he accidentally harmed is okay. He’s sorry now but doesn’t know the irreparable damage he has done. Still, the young man’s brother could lash out in anger. Instead, he takes the high road and tells him the boy is fine. His father grimly gives him a nod. He has made the most merciful decision for all parties involved.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the moment and you begin to understand to what extent these British soldiers were sitting ducks on the beaches of Dunkirk. Because you are right beside them in every waking moment. And if we understand the horrors and the selfishness that begins to breed as survival instincts set in then just as easily we comprehend the pure euphoria that comes over the men when the flotilla from home comes to their rescue.
Even in these moments what is striking is not so much that Dunkirk is a grand epic but it feels surprisingly intimate. Despite the anonymity that runs through a great deal of this film Nolan still gives us characters that we can attach ourselves to and they begin to resonate not because we know their person inside and out necessarily but we start to empathize with their positions first hand. When you begin to see the world as someone else sees it, it’s difficult not to connect. And that goes for everyone.
Because this was not just a war of soldiers from the army, navy, and air force. This was a war that involved nurses and the home guard and every other man, woman, and child who rationed their supplies and blacked out their windows all because of the collective war effort.
It’s often the most trying circumstances that bring us together so that we are no longer individuals but we become one. Dunkirk seems like precisely one of those galvanizing events that can forever be looked back on with pride. It personifies bravery, resilience, a stiff upper lip if you want to put it that way. And the significance in survival is that they lived to fight another day and ultimately with the other Allied powers they were able to quell the Nazis.
Some might come out of Dunkirk hailing it as one of the great war pictures of our generation, but truthfully it’s more so a survival story and a tribute to the fighting spirit that often dwells in the souls of men. In an age so often lacking in courage, fortitude, and honor those are the very attributes that rise to the surface and become most evident. Dunkirk is a striking reminder, not simply for the British people, but for us all.