I saw Dunkirk, yawned, and went to bed. I woke slowly to the ripping roar of jet engines at dawn (I had crashed at a friend’s house near SeaTac) and before opening my eyes, realized with a jolt: That’s what Christopher Nolan was doing!
“That” is the grand experiment of Dunkirk. Walking out of the theater at midnight, I had been so restless with disappointment that Nolan’s little stunt completely dodged me. (Spoiler-haters, leave now.) The director of Batman-trilogy fame is always experimenting with something—Can he tell a story backwards? Can he tell a movie in four acts? Answers are yes and no—and in his own words, Dunkirk is his “most experimental structure” since he cut his directorial teeth on Memento. Which is how Dunkirk must be judged—as an experiment.
Overall, it works as an experiment more than it succeeds as a war movie.
Dunkirk is visionary, unorthodox, and—nearly impossible in a seemingly infinite universe of WWII movies—completely one of a kind. It takes your breath away like a battering ram…and feels stupefyingly barren. I can’t remember ever being so underwhelmed by 100 minutes of awesome. Given the movie’s radical triumph across the technical board (cinematography, photography, film editing, casting, acting, music, sound editing), its sins of omission in character/dialogue are baffling. Nolan doesn’t fail on the grand scale, he slips in the basics. What’s this, Christopher? Since when have you packed in too little?
Had Nolan loved his characters as much as he loved his brainy idea, had he determined to tell the story of Dunkirk more than he desired to pull off a magic trick, Dunkirk could have been truly stunning. As it is… Like I said, I yawned and went to bed.
The movie unspools in a concentric triad of stories, each on its own clock: one week with the soldiers on the beach (featuring a nameless British infantryman played by unknown Londoner Fionn Whitehead); one day with a civilian sailor (Oscar-winner Mark Rylance) crossing the channel; and one hour in the sky with the coolest pilot since Luke Skywalker (Tom Hardy, who, after The Dark Knight Rises and Mad Max, has become an expert in show-stealing while hiding behind a mask).
Nolan has always been obsessed with time and the way it distorts in dreams (Inception), memory (Memento), and the entire universe (Interstellar), and you’d think we’d be tired of him playing with it, but no. Dunkirk’s spiral effect is brilliant. The nonlinear week-day-hour technique acts as a boa constrictor. Since roughly every other third scene transpires further down the road than the last, you’re constantly wondering how the others will catch up. The tension is unreal. Each story spins a tighter circle till all converge at a single moment just in time for the climax—and what a climax! No matter how badly it hobbles in the middle, the movie sticks the landing with explosive finesse. (More on this below.)
So, make no mistake, Nolan’s experiment is a total prizewinner. I defy 2017 to find a more cunning or powerful framework on which to hang a story. The story, however, is wanting.
Heavy on Vibe, Light on Facts
Nolan nails the truth of emotions but not enough truth of what and who and when and where and why. He drops us in the middle of the war with too little explanation. Many critical historical details are either manipulated (e.g., Churchill’s orders to evacuate the French; he directed explicitly and repeatedly that they were to be rescued alongside the Brits) or, more often, completely missing. What have the British and French armies been up to till now? Why evacuate? Where are the German Panzers? Where is the RAF?
These details should have been clearer, because a captive audience is not necessarily a happy audience. We need to know, not just feel. Despite the gritty details of ear-piercing gunshots and faces slicked with oil and the awe-kindling glory and terror of dogfights over open ocean, the movie’s effect is yawningly impressionist.
The bulk of the film becomes an odd mix of realism and nonrealism. Nolan’s dream of creating an immersive experience is superbly realized for the most part; frequent close-ups, stunning sound realism, and the strangulation effect of the off-kilter scene structure create an almost unbearable tunnel vision as you feel like you are there…and you probably aren’t getting off the beach alive. But then the spell breaks. Just take the dialogue. The film is so taciturn, the rare conversation sounds wrong. When thousands of soldiers who would be speaking aren’t speaking, I drift out of the movie’s clutches. Never mind, Nolan, I’m not on the beach—I’m in a theater wishing I could rewrite the script.
But the biggest problem is the hero. The young soldier is completely unknowable. Where does he come from? Why does he fight? Who’s praying for his return back home? Nolan, of course, does not withhold these details by accident. I simply disagree that reticence was the best tactic. Even Fionn Whitehead’s sympathetic, barely-needs-to-shave face can’t emote enough for us to care as deeply as we should for the lead. I connected with him for five minutes; then I started critiquing him, wondering when this supposedly archetypal soldier was actually going to become a 3D human being. Nolan, in his attempt to create the British Everyman, gives us a British No-man.
Let me take down two counterarguments. First: Nolan notes that the miracle of Dunkirk is so familiar in Britain that it is “part of the national DNA.” True. A well-informed audience requires less teaching. I still say the movie needs additional historical details in order to pack the ultimate punch. A music buff may very well know every minute of Beethoven’s Ninth, but you still deliver the proper melodic build-up if you want them to appreciate the pinnacle cymbal crash.
Second counterargument: Nolan deliberately suppresses information in an effort to put us in the boots of the soldiers who had no clue what was going on: “Part of the terror, part of the real sense of fear and isolation and vulnerability of these men, was not knowing what was happening.” I like it. But he deprives us of information that even the British army knew, such as what they’ve been doing in France and Belgium until now, why they expect the navy and RAF so intensely, and their own names, for goodness’ sake—information that would have helped us feel one with them and their terror. Just a bit more explanation—in the name of tension, Nolan’s guiding star—would have done wonders.
Here’s an example. Nolan should have demonstrated better just how dire the situation had become by the time the makeshift armada appears on the horizon. In history, every man on the beach was wondering, Where’s the bloody fleet? Where are the destroyers? Where are our people? In the film, maybe one or two people even voice this concern. The audience loses track of the expectation that any minute, the world-famous British navy, the ships that built her glorious empire, should appear. Crank it up! Who fell asleep at the suspense switch?
Nolan also whiffs the opportunity to capture the story across the channel: the frenzied race in countless harbors to send ships, any ship, to the rescue. By cutting back and forth between these two POVs—the desperate prayers of many a dying soldier; the frantic hustle and bustle of ordinary civilians—Nolan could have set up the climax beautifully. What a scene! Dozens of ships materializing on the horizon in a reverse D-Day: instead of a navy of invaders, a navy of guardian angels. In real life, the sight was so soul-stirring that one officer spontaneously quoted the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V: “And gentlemen in England, now abed, shall think themselves accursed they were not here!”
But thanks to the film’s lack of communication and the constant blur of death and stress, you forget it’s the eleventh hour. The rescue is a comparative whimper.
Medals of Honor: Zimmer and 70MM
But to steer this back to positive, Dunkirk has many, many stellar sequences. The dogfights are especially alive as the dueling planes carve calligraphic wakes in the atmosphere at impossible angles and dizzying speeds, captured by IMAX cameras strapped to the wings of real Spitfires. (Yes, the camera attached to the ditched plane really sank. Nolan shipped the soggy film back to LA where technicians processed it, dried it out, and produced perfect footage of the flooding cockpit. The take appears in the movie.) The eternity of sky above and sea below on the skyscraperish screen is entrancing. If you’re within 300 miles of a 70mm IMAX theater, get thee to a 70mm IMAX theater.
But perhaps the single biggest reason the film succeeds at all, certainly the most important character, is the one who does the most talking: Hans Zimmer. He helps create (and then amplifies) everything best about Dunkirk. The soundtrack is a sonic revolution. The barrage of metallic groans and unnerving brass wails (invoking the infamous “Jericho trumpet” sirens of dive-bombing German Stukas) are so thunderous, my chair and body vibrated, and veterans of the evacuation declared it louder than the actual bombardment (a reaction which amused Nolan).
The soundtrack marches to a ceaseless ticking (recorded off Nolan’s watch)—not the first time Zimmer has looped Chronos into his music. You can hear a similar beat in Sherlock Holmes and Interstellar. But the pulse is particularly ominous in Dunkirk. Add to this Nolan’s favorite auditory illusion known as the Shepard tone, in which ascending notes, each an octave apart, are subtly layered to create an infinite corkscrew of pitch (occurs notably in tracks “Supermarine” and “The Oil”), and the result is a soundscape of relentless tension that perfectly matches the matryoshka of storylines.
The most spectacular musical moment is the finale, as all three times and stories converge to the sound of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod,” a majestic piece of deep patriotic significance to the Brits, featured every year in the country’s observance of Remembrance Sunday. Zimmer weaves the stately strains into the song of the last scene as Tom Hardy blows the final German plane out of the sky and emergency lands on the beach aglow with sunset and, miles away, Fionn Whitehead’s hero, finally on his way home, reads aloud Churchill’s most famous vow:
We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growth strength in the air. We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.
And even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.
In the end, Dunkirk is a mentally dazzling, uniquely typhoon-like addition to the war movie genre. (At a nearly bloodless PG-13, it is also one of the first war movies I would recommend to young teenagers.) Despite crafting a strange void in certain crucial areas, Nolan understands: Dunkirk was a breathtaking watershed that changed the course of the war, and hence all of history. “This is an essential moment in the history of the Second World War,” he said. “Militarily it is a defeat; on the human plane it is a colossal victory.”
Thanks to Churchill (and Nimrod, and sunset, and the fact that Tom Hardy ends up surrounded by Germans with a “molon labe” look on his face), you do get some sense of this victory. But overall, I got bulldozed by sheer sound and urgency and bounced back way too soon. One should not be able to recover so quickly from any WWII film, much less one of Christopher Nolan’s.
Dunkirk does brilliant things with time. I just wish it had done more with the time it was granted.