The closest we get to an audience proxy in Christopher Nolan’s relentless exercise in tension and survival is the young soldier played by Fionn Whitehead. He could be anyone’s son, and he’s a partly shell-shocked but still wily (and very observant) lad in Nolan’s wartime nightmare/day scream. We open with him walking through abandoned French coastal village streets as pamphlets rain down announcing, “We surround you.” That first gunshot, setting him off on a run for his life, is so piercing you feel like you’ve been shot at…and it invites the audience to partake in this immersive first-person narrative. He’s the first and last one we see in the film, and his Murphy’s Law-ridden week-long escape from the besieged French shores anchors the multi-POV time-collapsing narrative. Most notably, his struggle to survive is not alone. He doesn’t get from point A to point Z without interacting with others equally driven to survive, and not without help.
Elsewhere, on one fateful day, we have another brave boy named George (Barry Keoghan) selflessly join his friend (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend’s father (a superb Mark Rylance) as they take their pleasure yacht to join a civilian fleet heading to Dunkirk to pick up some of the 400,000 soldiers stranded there between the English Channel and encroaching enemy tanks on the land. When he hops aboard the vessel after only supposed to have helped father and son set off, the wise elder tells him, “It’s a war, George.” To which George calmly and confidently replies, “I could be of use, sir.”
The film is filled with that kind of stark to-the-point dialogue, interspersed judiciously in a cinematic story otherwise devoid of spoken language but swelling with human emotion transmitted visually across a sprawling canvas of land, sea, and air.
Which brings us to the air…where over the course of an hour Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden partake in an aerial ballet of symphonic cat-and-mouse with enemy bombers which plays like the greatest silent film ever made…silent except for the nerve-shattering sound-design and Hans Zimmer’s ticking-clock score. Seeing the tiny planes against the backdrop of a vast ocean draped across a 70MM IMAX screen with that sound and that music is a reminder of just how different an experience film, when done this big and this artfully, can offer over any other art form (especially television).
So there we have it. Three intertwining stories stretching across one week…one day…one hour, that Nolan brilliantly collapses into a single harrowing event where all three narratives eventually meet.
From capsizing boats of all sizes at all times of day and night and in one instance startlingly set aflame, to sea-foam rolling up from the encroaching tides turning into frozen rolling frost in the bitter winds as if some mythical blanket-like froth is about to envelop all the weary soldiers on the beach and gently cover them before an endless slumber, to a heroic plane running on fumes gliding over a sunset-strewn beach, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema takes Nolan’s vision and creates some of the most indelible wartime images in the history of the medium.
Curiously the film is without gore, though horrors and screams are all around, and physical smoke (to which characters are constantly heading towards or running away from) billowing up on the horizon signals an endless onslaught of physical violence while symbolizing the existential crisis of being surrounded and besieged by a seemingly unstoppable enemy determined to turn everything and everyone to dust. It’s almost as curious as the lack of meaty dialogue…and the complete lack of exposition apart from the briefest of insights into George’s motives which leads to a choked-up dénouement to his character arc and perhaps the only moment of sentimentality to be found in the film.
But it’s all part of Nolan’s tactic. We are there. Right there with these boys. With these men. It doesn’t matter who they are or where they came from or even why they are there. The long arm of history thrust them into this calamity which they had no choice but to meet with all the humanity they could muster. And you then realize, that Kenneth Branagh’s character may also be a spiritual proxy for the audience, as his commanding officer on the beach continually turns his gaze skyward as bombers both enemy and friendly loom overhead…in fear, in awe, in hope. He stands there, no matter what he thinks might happen in that next moment which could find him or his men blown to smithereens. He must make decisions. He must continue to act. He will never surrender.
As the soldiers are finally brought back to English soil, an old man hands out blankets and thanks them. “For what?” one of the boys who’ve we’ve spent a hell of a time with asks, “All we did was survive.” To which the old man replies, “Sometimes that’s enough.”
Nolan’s Dunkirk is a cinematic resurrection of a spirit that once drove a nation to persist. Boldly.
Written by David H. Schleicher