There is an unspoken understanding among filmmakers that war is hell and that war films must convince their audiences of it. And it isn’t a controversial notion. The guy who exits the theater nodding sagely and remarks, “Man, war is hell,” can’t expect much pushback from his buddies. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk contributes to the genre by suggesting that maybe war is, in fact, earth.
The first few minutes of the film are devoted to a young soldier wandering through a French village in search of any convenient substitute for a bathroom. Lack of water, enemy gunfire, friends dying—they all reduce to obstacles keeping him from the earthiest of necessities. And when German planes shower the area with propaganda leaflets he crumples a few into his pocket (as a convenient substitute for toilet paper) without a shred of irony. Only after this introduction does Nolan begin actively setting the scene and orienting audiences to his mode of storytelling. One in which lack of open combat or a tangible enemy make it a less than typical war film—less reminiscent of Spielberg than of Das Boot or the best portions of A Bridge Too Far.
We are introduced to three settings: the beach at Dunkirk and a slender pier known as “the Mole,” “the sea” across which deliverance will ultimately come, and “the air” where fighter pilots battle for control of the sky. The heavens, the earth, the waters; and time passes differently in each. For the stranded soldiers waiting on the French shore, a week passes over the course of the film; for the civilian sailors coming to the relief of their stranded compatriots, a day; and for three British Spitfire pilots (including Tom Hardy’s terse, adroit ace), a single hour. But as one of England’s national poets says, it is possible to see eternity in an hour, and the Spitfires prove ubiquitous, stretching time and folding it over on itself as they appear at crucial moments in each of the three narrative threads Nolan weaves together. Nolan even suggests an infinity to their flight by omitting any footage of a takeoff; when we first see them they are already in the air—three figures “hovering” over the face of the waters. While the film might not bear the weight of a thoroughly theological reading, these pilots are, in effect, brooding protectively over a young world.
The young, tenuous, in-between world Nolan constructs is populated by young men (and almost-men), and they are not yet certain there is any virtue to be had within themselves. They have been frustrated by the loss of true battle, forced into a circumstance with little opportunity for heroism (they are running away, after all). In Dunkirk, “We need our army back,” is so desperate a sentiment not only because Britain’s military teeters on the brink of destruction, but because Britain’s youth does. Nolan’s camera never shows us enemy soldiers, though, and we must wonder if cowardice and despair aren’t meant to represent greater threats.
Visually and audibly (especially in IMAX), to watch Dunkirk is to be battered by the sights and sounds of desperate uncertainty until you arrive at a point beyond condemnation. Nolan uses the shell shock of a faithful viewing to convince the audience that there is very little wickedness in his story. Virtue is the glory and prerogative of old men, and the few in Dunkirk resort to valor and virtuous deeds with apparent ease. What’s more, they are unsurprised when young men fail to act decorously, and quick to forgive inglorious conduct. Kenneth Branagh’s stalwart naval commander gently ribs a young army private who nearly sleeps through the climactic evacuation, before finding him a place in the last officers’ boat bound for England; Mark Rylance’s civilian yachtsman pardons even greater sins in a rattled, shipwrecked soldier he pulls from the ocean. For the young who do shameful things, virtue requires great exertion and remains nearly out of reach; for the old men who have no thought of shaming them it is second nature. What separates them? Experience and, chiefly, time.
Time, fluid as it is in Nolan’s telling, is a constant presence in Dunkirk, and never runs swiftly. Hans Zimmer’s sweeping but remarkably restrained score incorporates the frenetic ticking of a stopwatch into the first movement, and again at the film’s climax. Instead of reflecting the rapid passage of time, though, Zimmer’s ticking clock is like blood pounding in the ears, making time into an oppressor and an obstacle. Time is what has made the old men into good men, and the young soldiers’ chief concern is not being good but living long enough to become good. When hundreds of thousands of soldiers do indeed make it home successfully, a blind man greets them with blankets and an earnest “Well done!” One young man, guilty over acts of cowardice committed along the way, cannot believe that the old man is sincere; he knows he is no hero. Surviving till goodness can be learnt—he does not yet grasp—is the great feat they have accomplished. This tension lifts the events of Dunkirk out of history and makes it a universal story. In fact, Nolan provides so little framing context that, to a viewer ignorant of history (and he may sense how much of his audience fits the description), this could be a story from any conflict, about any soldiers—any men.
After all, there are no great men in Dunkirk. Hitler is not so much as mentioned. Churchill is named twice but never seen or heard, and though his famous “fight them on the beaches” speech is included, Nolan conveys it secondhand in the mouth of a soldier reading the newspaper. Though the cast is large the story is not character-driven. We do not learn the names of most characters, even in the credits, and quickly forget the ones we do. The experienced actors are intentionally underutilized and the film is not built upon standout performances (Tom Hardy’s eyes being, perhaps, the notable exception). As miraculous and decisive as the evacuation from Dunkirk was, it almost wasn’t, and Nolan presents the men who lived through it as men in the most basic sense. Men for whom fear is real, goodness is costly, and home seems perpetually hidden on the far side of some coastal fog. To be a man is hell, he suggests, until—if God is gracious—it isn’t.