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With ‘Dunkirk,’ Christopher Nolan Has Crafted Another Convoluted Puzzle

The stakes are high for these soldiers, but less so for the director’s mind games

(Warner Bros./Ringer illustration)
(Warner Bros./Ringer illustration)

When bombs drop in Dunkirk, every man in sight falls to take cover. They fall by the thousands: a cascade of cowering, vulnerable soldiers with nothing to hide beneath save their helmets, beach brush, and occasional debris. None of that saves them. Completely exposed to German attack, these British and French soldiers, numbering more than 300,000, are waiting for evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, where their army has been forcefully separated from their allies, making them susceptible to a devastating massacre — a massacre that would win Germany the war. The year is 1940: The stakes couldn’t be higher. After the bombs hit and the air clears, the men who survive get back up to keep waiting, watching as the Royal Navy vessels sent to save them get downed, again and again, by German planes. The rest of the men don’t get up. And that’s that.

In Christopher Nolan’s brisk, tense movie, this all tends to be, on average, pretty interesting. There’s the fact that we’re set on a beach, dwarfed by ceiling-high shots of the sky and the equally vast tours of the sea. The film was shot in 65mm IMAX and seems absolutely dead-set on reminding us to watch it that way. Alongside Nolan’s struggling Allied soldiers, we in the audience are overwhelmed by the scope of it all, vulnerable to the tides of the movie’s plot. Adding to our stress and excitement is the fact that Nolan, who is nothing if not a showman, has written and directed this story to unfold in three different ways, on three separate timelines, each distinguished by a distinct form of travel. This is a war movie that plays out not only by sea, but also by air and by land — all at once. Nolan is of course constitutionally unable to tell this story in a straightforward way.

In other words: Nolan’s gonna Nolan. All of his favorite tricks are here: the obsessively practical realism; the steel-gray palette; the phenomenally bone-shaking sound design; the high-degree-of-difficulty structural somersaults; and, yes, the psychologically vague male heroes and the goddamned incessant tick-tocking of a Hans Zimmer score. Per usual with Nolan, our experience of the movie has been far preceded by the facts of how it was made. Those aren’t CGI soldiers cowering from those bombs, for example: 6,000 extras were used in the filming of the movie, and they were supplemented by cardboard cutouts, not digitized clones. Nolan had carte blanche, by modern Hollywood standards — just peep that $5 million vintage German plane he acquired for the movie. And on and on: the 125 theaters projecting it in 70mm, the $20 million director’s salary, etc.

These are the details that chase Nolan’s films more vigorously than those of most current mainstream directors I can think of, in part, I gather, because Nolan has made big-budget action auteurism feel vital — influential — again. There’s a mystery to his process, for some of us. That mystery isn’t sustained or justified, for me, by watching one of his movies — but the appeal is clear. Dunkirk’s main focus is a young British soldier named Tommy, played by Fionn Whitehead, who’s trying to survive on those beaches. His story line lasts a week. Meanwhile, by sea, a day-long story line plays out with a middle-aged man named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), who, with his teenage son and his son’s friend, has answered a national call for regular citizens to take to the English channel with their yachts and tugboats and assist the effort to evacuate the beaches. In the air above the Channel, meanwhile, fly a pair of Royal Air Force pilots (played by Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy), who try to pick off the Luftwaffe planes bombing the Allied soldiers and ships below. Their plotline takes place over an hour.

There’s a lot going on. Nolan switches between story lines and characters with a mathematical sense of timing and dramatic assurance. It’s all building toward something — you know it’s the end of this ordeal, but you’re never sure of how you’ll get there or what it will all mean. More and more characters appear — a Kenneth Branagh or Cillian Murphy here, a Harry Styles there — and, despite its relatively short (sub-two-hour) length, the movie seems to take on the scope of an epic. With Nolan’s deliberately obfuscating structure, every scene is a race against the clock — however artificial.

I sensed, with Tommy’s timeline in particular, that a week spent hiding from enemy fire and trying to escape might still, despite the constant stress of that ordeal, have moments of terror that were more quiet than overbearing. There’s undoubtedly a way to tell this story that’s more The Thin Red Line than Inception at Sea, but that wouldn’t be Nolan’s bag: There’s nary a quiet moment in this film. You can see the challenge of making it. It’s a movie about an invisible threat that could come at any moment, but who knows what "at any moment" means — or how to fill the time until that happens. So, of course: three story lines. And a constant ticking, or thudding, that metes out time and urgency in the movie as if Nolan wants to reach into your chest and reorient your heartbeat.

It’s as if the film wields being "in the moment" as an excuse not to wonder who its characters are beyond that moment, but that’s not a Nolan problem so much as it’s the common flaw in any number of recent, stripped-down survival stories (All Is Lost, for example, or even Mad Max: Fury Road). Who are the characters in Dunkirk, really? With 6,000 extras standing in for more than 300,000 men, all of them hanging around, there are plenty of moments in which we see men chatting away in the background of the action, offering up any number of ideas, observations, or mere stray thoughts. We’re never given access to any of that, however. Nolan is telling a survival story about characters who largely aren’t specific enough to have lives to go back to. It’s enough for the movie, it seems, that they’re alive and want to stay that way.

Tommy — who tries to board an escape vessel by carrying an ailing man on a stretcher and when that fails, sneaks onto a vessel, and when that vessel sinks, makes his way back to the beach — spends most of the movie partnered up with a fellow soldier to whom he apparently has little to say. They hatch that plan to carry the stretcher together, for example, but never talk about it — or even, to my knowledge, trade names.

Call that war realism, if you like, but it soon becomes clear why these men don’t talk to each other. Like so much else, Nolan has simply engineered it that way. It isn’t a matter of character; it’s a matter of structure. Nolan openly imitates the sense of a puzzle being put together, even when — as in this case — there’s no compelling reason to do so. In Inception, you could make the case that the dreams within dreams were all a guise for jumping down the rabbit hole of one very guilty dude’s mind — and the same for Memento. In Interstellar, meanwhile, the time lags of space travel and Nolan’s lovey-dovey black-hole mysticism more or less justified that film’s scattered leaps across time and space. But here on WWII terra firma, I’m not so sure. When the multiple plotlines begin to twine together climatically, with men in different timelines seeming to drown in the English Channel concurrently, I had to wonder if this was all we were here for: a doubled-down suspense trip that’s neither here nor there.

One good thing about the disorienting structure is that the movie has a built-in sense of confusion that correlates with what’s happening. That’s apparent from its opening scene, when we’re dropped right into the action as Tommy and a group of other soldiers are shot at. Characters simply do what they try to do for the rest of the movie: survive. Later, however, the movie tries to have ideas about that survival — about whether mere survival is a form of heroism — that it’s otherwise too pared down to explore.

It’s a false turn. The film manages to be rigidly unsentimental up till the end. Isn’t that typical Nolan? He is absolutely a sentimentalist (see also: ugly-crying Matthew McConaughey) whose masculinized realism can come off as an active attempt to suppress that urge until, randomly, it doesn’t. That realism is aesthetically appealing. The images are wet and rugged when we’re on the beach; terrifyingly vast when we’re airborne; and politely claustrophobic when we’re on Mark Rylance’s yacht. The airborne sequences are particularly delightful; Nolan is an immense talent when it comes to giving his images scale, and those practical effects pay off when we’re watching boats topple over onto pools of trapped, stranded men. But by saving the true goods, the best ideas, for the tail end and not giving them room to breathe, Nolan sells himself short. When Dunkirk ended, I realized it wasn’t Dunkirk I wanted to watch: It was the sequel.