I’ve thought about how far removed we are in 2017 from the world that was struck the dual blow of back-to-back world wars so close together. I don’t doubt that a third world war could happen, but the way wars are fought today through proxy battles, skirmishes, and calculated strikes all but ensures we’ll never again see the kind of full-scale meat grinder that was military history of the first half of the 20th century. In light of that kind of remove, and the increasing attrition of the people who actually lived through these events, we can look to historians to rebuild the past so that we can understand it, but we must look to artists to rebuild it for us to experience.
Christopher Nolan has always been a filmmaker of immense attention to detail. Whether it’s building plots or set pieces that literally fold in on themselves, Nolan’s obsession with the building blocks of stories has frequently made for cerebral experiences that place form above function. Between Memento and Interstellar, his two films with the most human stories at their respective centres, he made six films that were, for the most part, technically brilliant but emotionally impenetrable. He almost got there with Interstellar; despite its final act flub, it was the first of his films to feel like it truly wrestled with human relationships and meaning in an interpersonal way.
Dunkirk is the movie through which Nolan best balances the meticulous concerns of an auteur with the ecstatic longings of a storyteller. I can’t speak enough to the elegance with which Dunkirk handles a story of such small geographical and personal concern in light of the far-reaching effect of its outcome—this is an event that quite literally might have changed the history of the world, and it all took place on a beach in the north of France. It’s unlike any war film I’ve seen, and it’s unlike any film I’ve seen.
Formally, Dunkirk is recognizably Nolan. Its strange editing is (I think intentionally) confusing, cutting back and forth between three stories tracing the rescue by land, by sea, and by air, each with its own timeline (a week, a day, an hour). These separate stories tighten until chaotic convergence to the ticking time bomb of Hans Zimmer’s percussive score, a discomforting miasma of taut, discordant strings. You’ll want to see it twice, just to experience it again once you’ve gotten your bearings.
Much has been made recently of Nolan’s distaste for Netflix and his defense of the theatrical experience. Few films make that case better than Dunkirk, especially if you have the opportunity to see it in 70mm IMAX. A substantial portion (what feels like 75%) of the film is shot in IMAX, a theatrical experience comparable only to the way Gravity used the format to engulf you in the vacuum of space. Here, Nolan and director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema use IMAX to emphasise the micro and the macro, from the fear on each individual soldier’s face to the line up of thousands of helpless soldiers assembled on a dock to be either picked up or picked off from above. He pushes the camera through the claustrophobic space between masses of bodies huddled tightly together, and then pulls it way out until those bodies are just specks dotting the landscape. He uses the space of the IMAX screen to evoke the vastness of the sea, making the relatively short distance across the English Channel feel endless in the way it felt to those trapped on the other side.
But Dunkirk is not just an exercise in style. Nolan uses the formal elements to enhance the emotional impact of the film, in a way that creeps up on you. Nolan does not give us a central protagonist here, but rather a sea of faces that are often indistinguishable. We follow a small group of characters, but when their faces are obscured during the disorienting climax it is as if to subvert our tendency to look for “our” hero among the dead and dying. We’re reminded of numbers: 400,000 soldiers trapped on this beach. There’s a mix of nihilism and hope in Dunkirk. “He’s probably dead,” one character says of a downed pilot. “He might be alive,” replies another. What’s a single life or a handful among so many? We know none of these soldiers. Yet we know all of these soldiers.
I was overwhelmed by the film’s relentless pace that punishes its viewers without reprieve. Nolan foregoes narrative conventions in favour of cinematic experience, one that puts the viewer literally in the line of fire, absorbing the fear and desperation onscreen so that you’re able to feel the small moments of accomplishment, sacrifice, and grace that occasionally break the tension—a gift offered for a job well done, a lie told to comfort the hurting, an acknowledgment of one’s responsibility to try to fix the world.
I was moved in a way I wasn’t expecting by the way the film questions our notion of what makes a hero. There is a plot involving a fishing boat captained by Mark Rylance, tasked with rescuing a handful of soldiers from the beach. If bravery and resolve are the greatest markers of heroism, then is this fisherman more heroic than the shell-shocked soldier he takes aboard, who refuses to return to Dunkirk lest they all die? The film reminds us that human life is fleeting; sometimes in war, people die in cruel ways, sometimes in indifferent ways, and sometimes in dumb accidents. How do we measure the value of one of these lives over another? And how do those who have been in the thick of it remember their own actions and decisions? Are they haunted by the eagerness with which they might give up an ally to save themselves? After being evacuated, one character expects that the public will scorn them in the street for cowardice. Here, the movie would challenge anyone who has just survived the grueling prior 90 minutes to regard simple survival as anything other than an act of heroism in itself.