Sunday, July 23, 2017
Six soldiers are walking through an empty town. One tries to drink from a hose, another looks for a used cigarette. They do not speak. Gunfire from an unseen source erupts, and the soldiers try to defend themselves. Five men whose names we never learn are killed. Only Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) gets away. The previous six sentences are the opening sequence of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan's visceral but supremely controlled film about the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. A title card tells us all we need to know: Germans have pushed Allied soldiers to the Dunkirk beach, where they are being pounded by air while the Allies hold on to a shaky perimeter. The British have no mechanism for evacuating 400,000 men. When Tommy makes it to the safety of the perimeter we get our first look at what is happening on the beach, a kind of organized nothingness. Soldiers queue up for ships that aren't coming - water conditions made it impossible to take men directly off the beach in large boats - while wounded men are evacuated at a ship docked at the "mole" (a large jetty). As the Germans continue to bomb, the officer in charge (Kenneth Branagh) can only contain damage and keep the mole clear for the next ship.Nolan cuts away from the beach to two other story lines. When the British Navy calls for civilian help to evacuate soldiers, a man (Mark Rylance) pilots his boat across the channel to see what he can do. Two RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) engage with German fighters in an attempt to protect those on the beach.
Dunkirk breaks our idea of what a war film can or should be by fitting in to neither of the two models that we're accustomed to. There isn't a "mission" to accomplish here other than to survive, and though we keep returning to Tommy on the beach there isn't anything special about his situation or about the men (including one played by pop star Harry Styles) he eventually falls in with. Nolan wrote the screenplay for Dunkirk himself, and he spends no time in the script (reported to be only seventy-six pages long) making a moral case for the war effort and in fact never shows German soldiers. The most patriotic moment we get is a recitation of Winston Churchill's "We shall fight on the beaches" speech, but where Nolan places Churchill's words and the performance of the actor delivering them render them highly ironic. Yet Dunkirk isn't a critique of war either, this isn't Nolan's M.A.S.H.. It's a film about what it feels like when a torpedo hits the boat you're on - the film's most terrifying sequence - and the choice to sacrifice some so that others might live. Filmmakers have spent millions of dollars trying to evoke the emotions that Nolan gets here by just holding the camera on Kenneth Branagh's face for a few seconds. Tom Hardy's performance as the pilot Farrier is entirely behavioral - almost all of his dialogue is about fuel consumption - but the character's heroism doesn't need to be commented on. The one strand of Dunkirk that maybe shouldn't work but does is Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson. Rylance is essentially playing the Soul of the British People, a pillar of duty and rectitude who doesn't reveal his personal motives until the job is done. It's a role that in lesser hands could have been a delivery system for whatever message the filmmaker wanted to impart, but Nolan keeps the character on task and Rylance underplays gorgeously. Mr. Dawson's rescue of a shell shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) and the soldier's subsequent behavior are the closest that Nolan comes to a conventional examination of war's psychological effects.
The last section of Dunkirk ties the film's three plots together in ways that aren't entirely surprising. It's here that the film feels most constructed, as if the script were a problem to be worked out. I'm not sure that film needed this tidiness when what has come before was so experiential, but the economy of Nolan's choices creates a tension that otherwise might have had to be ginned up with speeches and back story. It's no accident that Dunkirk is Nolan's shortest film since his debut, it needed to be. Dunkirk is a major advance for both Christopher Nolan and the war film, and if Nolan keeps working in the non-fantasy space then it also points to fascinating work to come.