#2 in my ranking of Christopher Nolan’s films.
This is the work of a very clever genius, a filmmaker in complete command of every aspect of filmmaking and able to bend it all to his will. Christopher Nolan is able to combine art house construction with broad filmmaking appeal to create one of the most invigorating big screen adventures of the last few years, with one very small exception. Much like 1917 by Sam Mendes, Dunkirk represents a new generation of elite filmmakers tackling the subjects their forebears repeatedly mined for stories in interesting and fresh new ways.
Nolan’s fascination with time and narrative structure is on full display with Dunkirk‘s three competing narratives. He tells the audience at the beginning what he’s doing, but he’s a bit cryptic about it. Personally, I didn’t get it until halfway through my first screening. At my third or fourth, I know going in that the action on the mole takes place over a week, the action on the sea takes place over a day, and the action in the air takes place over an hour. It’s exactly what Nolan says with his few titles, of course. This interesting structure provides Nolan leeway to tell an expansive, but somewhat generalized story of the Dunkirk evacuation, all coalescing around a single, exciting event.
The closest we get to a main character is Tommy, played by Fionn Whitehead, as a young soldier that, to me, recalls Tom, the main character from Stuart Cooper’s Overlord. Detached from what’s left of his unit at the beginning of the film when he’s the sole survivor of an attack on the streets of Dunkirk, Tommy spends the movie trying to find a way off the beach. His being unattached allows him to move around to different parts of the action at the mole, showing the audience a lot more than if Tommy had been left to wait in the queue along with the majority of those waiting for rescue. He sees the sinking of two boats, one of which he’s on, the despair of those on the beach, and is part of a desperate attempt to leave in a small Dutch ship that’s been washed ashore at low tide.
The tale at sea contains the most emotionally affecting moments centered around Mr. Dawson, a dedicated older man who owns and captains the Moonstone, a small motor boat the British government has requisitioned for service to retrieve the stranded British soldiers, and George, a local boy and friend of Mr. Dawson’s son, who jumps on for the ride because he wants to be useful and make something of himself. As they sail south to France, they pick up a young officer who’s the last survivor of a U-boat attack on a ship, and he’s shellshocked for the experience. The officer ends up fighting Mr. Dawson’s effort to continue on, accidentally pushing George down the stairs to the lower deck and hitting his head fatally.
The tale in the air is of two fighter pilots after losing their leader in an initial dogfight, as they fly southward towards Dunkirk in an effort to do what they can with their hour of flying time. These sequences are the movie’s most obvious standout moments. Filed on 70mm film stock with IMAX cameras, they capture the details of the seas, clouds, skies, and planes to such an incredible degree while also, when combined with the realistic dogfighting, makes for a wonderful sensational experience.
If I were to break the three different sections into three different narrative focuses they would be that the mole represents the movie’s plot, the sea represents its heart, and the air represents its spectacle. It’s a simplified look, but I think it fits.
One thing I’ve always maintained about this movie is that it is a triumph of character. You don’t normally see that in a more procedural and task-based story, but Nolan populates each thread with such rich characters that I think it fits. I’ve seen criticism where people can’t recall character names and imply this to mean that there’s little character in the film, or that we don’t know backstories so we don’t know characters. Names and backstories are elements of building characters, but they are not the only thing about them. Looking at Mr. Dawson who will not let the navy take the Moonstone because it’s his, and the duty to help those trapped at Dunkirk does not solely exist with the government. We get a line of dialogue about how he lost his eldest flying Hurricanes in the third week of the war, which provides him with grounding on which to aggressively and emotionally pursue one of the downed British fighter planes. Combined with his sense of duty to country and the young men fighting an old man’s war, he’s able to swat away any criticism that this isn’t his fight. Mr. Dawson really is a rich character, and he’s not the only one. George has the great emotional moment, assisted by Peter, Mr. Dawson’s son, when he appears in the paper at the end, getting his moment of bravery told. Farrier, the last flying pilot played by Tom Hardy, gives up his opportunity to fly home safely in order to do his duty and fight the bomber threatening a troop carrier at sea. Really, the movie is a celebration of the traditional British character traits that would eventually help win the war against Germany.
Now, having said all that, there’s one moment in this movie that takes me out of it completely. Tommy, having gotten onto the small Dutch ship with a few other British soldiers, waits patiently for the tide to come in. Being on the extreme Western edge of the British position, they have no support, hoping for subterfuge to be their saving grace. The nearby German troops decide to use the seemingly empty vessel for target practice, filling the hull with bullet holes that end up taking in water when the tide does eventually come in. Now, as the ship is gaining hundreds of pounds of water every few seconds, the most prominent other British soldier decides that the mute soldier who’s been along with Tommy the whole way is a German spy and he needs to get off the boat in order to save them some weight so they can float. It’s such a weird choice that feels all wrong, like an effort to build more tension out of a moment that’s already full of it, to give the characters something to do rather than just wait for the ship to get carried away by the water. It’s not that the concerns don’t contain merit on their own, but combined with the situation around them and the other concerns, it feels like a mishmash more than anything else, and it stands out despite being over after just a couple of minutes.
The ending of the movie’s plot is really the overall point, I think. All three storylines converge on a single point, the sinking of the Dutch vessel next to a troop carrier that’s been hit by a bomb with the Moonstone picking people up and Farrier fighting off the last of the German air support at the same time. This is the kind of clever resolution that I know Nolan was getting the most excited about, and it works really well.
Overall, the movie has one small hiccup that keeps his from perhaps some kind of weirdly perfect film. Outside of that, it’s beautiful to look at, surprisingly emotional with wonderful characters, and thrilling in individual sequences and in total construction.