Dunkirk and Nolan’s Rush to Get Home


Last night after I watched Dunkirk, I remembered and sought out Brian Phillips’ twitter critique of the film:

I think Brian might be alluding to the War Film as Universal Studios Ride phenomenon, a genre set in ignominious terms by Spielberg’s far bloodier and more exploitative Saving Private Ryan.

While perhaps admirable for the way in which it de-sanitized the brutality of 20th century battle, Ryan couldn’t escape Spielberg’s penchant for the contrived; look no further in that film than the soldier whose bleeding is halted by a medic on the beaches of Normandy, only for a bullet to immediately pierce his helmet, a moment that has all the timing and impact of a punch-line rather than a sad reminder of war’s hideous lottery.

And Brian is certainly right that Dunkirk strays into similar territory; at points it feels like the main characters are little more than ants scurrying to avoid a shoe, and the artifice of their ‘close shaves’ with death shows at times.

Yes, Dunkirk is ‘immersive,’ to use an in-vogue bullshit word. The viewer is thrust into the action without any exposition beyond a few short sentences on a black screen. The dialogue throughout is sparse, the characters barely differentiated, essentially nameless (save for Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson, who pilots one of the famous ‘little boats’). The driving action is divided into air (RAF), earth (BEF) and water (Royal Navy), and it essentially consists of a series of gripping set-pieces: men shot in the streets by friendly fire, ships upended by U-boat torpedoes, Spitfires in aerial battle, men huddled in the belly of a leaky beached boat as it’s shot up for target practice by an enemy we never see.

In other words, Dunkirk’s emotional arc is purely visceral, and intimate. The three main story lines are perfectly paced and integrated, and the movie mostly avoids any maudlin sweep and grandeur. Nolan eschews CGI’d wide shots of countless warships in the Channel, cutaways of hundreds of thousands of men awaiting rescue on the pitch, or hordes of RAF fighters in the skies. Instead, we stay in close up with men who try to punch their way out of submerged cockpits, swim through oil-slicked waves, or crouch on endless piers while Luftwaffe planes scream overhead.

So yes, in that way, Dunkirk might seem like World War II VR. And it’s true: if Ford Madox Ford’s epic Parade’s End is on one end of the spectrum of fictional distillations of the horrors of war, then Dunkirk is on the other — a stripped down, one hour and forty-seven minute verite-style snapshot.

Nolan intended this, of course:

“The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story,” added Nolan. “I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters… The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? Will they be killed by the next bomb while trying to join the mole? Or will they be crushed by a boat while crossing?”

Yet Dunkirk hints at something more than exploitation of war for box office gain, I think, in part because of the nature of the very battle it depicts. For one, it wasn’t really a battle at all, but a very fortunate retreat.

In fact, the shots on the beach act as a kind of eerie inversion of the same shots in Saving Private Ryan. Rather than get mowed down in disorganized huddles on a bloody beach, the British Expeditionary Force looks out at the surf in neat lines, waiting for salvation. They do not run like lemmings into a meat grinder, but literally turn their backs on the enemy. As far as I could tell, the BEF doesn’t fire a single shot in the whole film. When characters do speak, they yearn not for the glory of battle, but simply for ‘home,’ almost in view but agonizingly far away.

Even the RAF pilots depicted by Nolan and led by Tom Hardy have home constantly on their minds; as they fly across the channel to assist the evacuation, fuel quantity is a constant concern. At one point, Hardy must choose between returning safely on his remaining petrol or engaging an enemy bomber, one certain to kill hundreds of British soldiers. In other movies, the decision would be made without hesitation, yet Hardy, hidden behind the oxygen mask, stretches out the moment, relying on his eyes to betray his fear.

As for Mr. Dawson, he takes his son and shiphand into danger out of a sense of duty to the army he’s too old to join. And yet even here their sacrifice is both complicated and senseless. Dawson loses his young son not from gallant heroism or a stray enemy bullet, but from a freak accident following the irrational violence of a shell-shocked survivor of a U-boat attack (Cillian Murphy). As he dies, the son simply speaks of wanting to do something to help, and a journalism career forever dashed. His mind are on matter domestic, boring yet comfortable, like home.

Throughout, the clock ticks down to disaster, but it’s not synchronized. As with many Nolan films, time both is and is not of the essence. Nolan’s go-to film composer Hans Zimmer ties the action together as usual with a relentless metronomic score, and yet the action cuts back and forth between days, hours, minutes. This gives the film an odd juxtaposition of dreamlike waiting with pulsating urgency.

All of this is familiar territory for Nolan. Inception involved dreams within dreams, each with multiplying time spans, with a main character driven by his desire to return to his family. Interstellar tells the story of an astronaut separated from his daughter my a massive gulf in spacetime, whose trip to another galaxy and inside a time-stretching black hole leads him…home again.

And, as with other Nolan films, home is never quite as you left it. Though some will find it saccharine or nationalistic, the final scenes of Dunkirk in which the ‘main character’, army private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), reads aloud Winston Churchill’s famous “fight them on the beaches’ speech, struck me as profoundly moving, not least because of the awful sacrifices that were yet to face the British Army that had just narrowly avoided massive defeat.

Yet, as with the spinning totem in Inception’s last shot, Nolan manages to pull a fast one at Dunkirk’s close. As soon as he reads the last line of Churchill’s famous words, printed in the paper, Tommy glances directly at the camera, a knowing look that undercuts the strains of Edward Elgar’s soaring Enigma Variations and Churchill’s stirring words.

It’s a look that says ‘enough.’