DUNKIRK: Christopher Nolan's Clockwork War Binge

Christopher Nolan’s new movie, Dunkirk, as you probably have been reading on the Internet, is not only “the film of the year” and an Oscar favourite. It's possibly the salvation of cinematic art from one of the staunchest champions of big-screen theatrical filmmaking. So, yeah… expectations are high.

Dunkirk is impressive, a precision-tooled cinematic artefact, a vision of war as a machine run amok. It may even be a perfect movie within limits, but the limits are constricted.

We begin in a kind of dream, with a squad of English soldiers wandering through the empty streets of the quaint seaside town of Dunkirk amid fluttering pamphlets from German airplanes, urging them to surrender. There’s an ambush from an unseen enemy; one soldier survives, runs, turns a corner and finds himself on a vast beach covered with soldiers.

The evacuation of Dunkirk is a subject for a national epic if ever there was one. In late May 1940, the British and Allied armies in Europe were trapped on the coast by Germans, who for reasons that are still debated, did not advance to finish the job. The British war ships were inadequate for the mass rescue effort so the War Office called on civilians to help.  Between May 27 and June 4, 338,226 men escaped, on 861 different kinds of boats, more than a quarter of which were sunk. England was able to save much of its army and, five years later, with its allies, prevailed against Germany.

 The very name of the town became a symbol of English resilience. To quote the 1958 British movie about the evacuation (based on Elleston Trevor’s jauntily titled novel, The Big Pick-Up) the event was “the great defeat and great miracle,” and the moment England became “whole,” uniting its civilians with its armed forces in a common cause. The older Dunkirk film reminds us of things Nolan leaves out: ordinary soldier cynicism about military commanders, humour, women, and other countries besides England.

Indeed, Nolan’s Dunkirk is stripped-down almost to the point of abstraction, a story with little dialogue, focusing almost entirely on a series of physical terrors — drowning, being struck from above or behind, all endured with tight-lipped masculine resolve. There’s always been a streak in Nolan’s work of Victorian boys’ adventure literature, tales of magicians and escape artists, puzzles, fantastic voyages, hypnotists and masked heroes. And war is, arguably, the ultimate boys’ adventure story, violent but somehow pristine.  Dunkirk avoids sex and humour and even graphic displays of blood and mutilation, which is difficult to do in depicting thousands of men being bombed on an open beach.

Instead, Nolan provides a constant sense of pressure, both visual and aural. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s strategy employs reality-heightening Imax and 65mm film, but often in a traditional squarish aspect ratio that forces us in close. Hans Zimmer’s musical score blends deep down into the concussive soundtrack, a thrum of rattling bass notes, the throb of ship engines, airplane drones, and a recurrent ticking time piece.

Following a model of a clock mechanism, there are three interwoven stories, each given an introductory title, and set on a different time schedules, like interlocking gears.  The first story, The Mole (an architectural term for a pier or breakwater) follows Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young frightened soldier on the open Dunkirk beach. Along with another soldier (Aneurin Barnard) he carries a wounded soldier on a stretcher along the Mole through crowds of men to a hospital ship, but the two men are kicked off the boat moments before it is bombed.

The two soldiers, and another who they rescue named Alex (One Direction star Harry Styles) spend the rest of the film, about a chronological week, trying to avoid German dive-bombers and bullets, and boarding boats which keep getting sunk. The “mole” has a double meaning, referring to a foreign stowaway, who figures in a minor subplot.

The second narrative, The Sea — the most stiff-upper-lipped tale and set over the course of a day — follows a middle-aged man, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son and his son’s young friend, who set out across the channel in a pleasure boat, heeding the War Office’s call for civilians to cross the channel to go rescue soldiers, including a dangerously shell-shocked one (Cillian Murphy).

The third story, The Air, set over a few hours, focuses on a trio of Spitfire pilots, soon reduced to two (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) as they engage with series of German fighters.  The dog-fight sequences and acrobatic struggles to get the enemy in the crosshairs are a kind of acrobatic death sport, though, unavoidably, they remind us of contemporary video games.

Periodically, we jump to the officers on the beach, led by Kenneth Branagh as the naval commander, providing an overview (a cast of thousands of extras but used with economy) and giving us, and a couple of infantrymen eavesdropping under the pier, updates on the progression of events.

Mostly, Dunkirk is first-person and experiential and not just immersive but submersive: drowning is the central nightmare here. In a furiously edited climactic sequence, a group of soldiers hide in a boat on shore as the tide comes in, when bullets start ripping through the metal hull, wounding bodies and letting the sea into their lungs. That scene is cross-cut with another dilemma of an English pilot who has ditched his Spitfire in the sea, struggling to break the plane’s glass dome as water rises around him.

While Dunkirk is a more grown-up subject than Nolan’s Dark Knight movies about the crime-fighting billionaire in a leotard, we see the same emphasis on entrapment, the grim sincerity of its heroes struggling through the nightmare of history. There’s none of the relief of Stanley Kubrick’s elevating irony or Steven Spielberg’s sentimentality or even the welcome inconsistencies of actual human beings.

For another perspective on Dunkirk, take a look at some of the YouTube archival clips of the soldiers arriving back in England from their ordeal on the French beach. You can see them as they drink tea and wolf down food, grinning and waving to the crowds, making thumbs-up signs to the cameras. They may be traumatized but they look like people tremendously happy to be alive.

Dunkirk. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Fionn Whitehead and Cillian Murphy. Opens wide July 21.


Liam Lacey is a former film critic for The Globe and Mail, as well as contributor to various other media outlets over the past 37 years.. He recently returned to Canada from Spain because he forgot about the weather.