Christopher Nolan’s masterful new war thriller, Dunkirk, is a harrowing chronicle of survival. Nolan’s predilection for gloriously sprawling ideas is supplanted by an almost mathematical precision that perfectly encapsulates our primal survival instinct. Everything coalesces into a work of startling power, from the technically immaculate action sequences and period-perfect detailing, to Hans Zimmer’s churning score and the naturalistic performances. Arguably Nolan’s best film, Dunkirk is a propulsive descent into Hell that celebrates the indomitable human spirit.
By the time the United States formally entered World War II in December 1941, hostilities had already been raging for two years in the European theater. Allied forces struggled to gain a foothold against the German assault, which employed Blitzkrieg war tactics to eventually corner English, French, and Belgian troops in the northern France village of Dunkirk in May 1940.
There, over 300,000 troops huddled on the beach for one week, enduring the surgical airstrikes of German bombers and the growing realization that a successful evacuation was unlikely. It was only through the impromptu mobilization of over 800 civilian boats, dubbed Operation Dynamo, that the soldiers were eventually extracted to kinder territories.
Of course, this is an oversimplified explanation for a rescue that required thousands of moving parts, backroom political wrangling, and a heaping dose of blind luck to succeed. It’s precisely this simplicity that makes Dunkirk so effective. Nolan (Interstellar, 2014, The Dark Knight Rises, 2012) leaves out the complicated military strategy and focuses on the grunts; the shivering soldiers cowering amidst the human detritus and blowing sea foam. For a director often criticized for long-windedness and a lack of humanity, Nolan proves he knows when to shut up and let the emotional current carry his story.
Nolan (flying solo on the script this time around) approaches the Dunkirk extraction by land, sea, and air, expertly intercutting stories that observe the carnage from all angles. There is no heroic glamor here; men scramble furiously to escape one tomb, only to be imprisoned by another. On more than one occasion, drowning men swim to find salvation on ships that are already sinking. One mesmerizing scene finds a group of desperate soldiers taking refuge in a beached boat, only to have unseen German marksmen literally use the hull for target practice. As the tide rises, what once seemed like a promising means of escape quickly becomes a leaky, floating coffin.
Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles, and Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk (2017)
Indeed, the prevailing feeling captured by Dunkirk isn’t one of escape, but of standing still. No matter how hard Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles) try to escape the doomed shore, fate (and some expertly aimed bombs) always sends them back. From above, fighter pilots Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy) try to provide cover, engaging in some of the fiercest and most realistically depicted aerial dogfights in cinematic history, but there is always another German plane to replace the one they just shot down. Dawson (Mark Rylance) bravely pilots his tiny yacht toward a throng of drowning soldiers, despite the knowledge that his vessel can only carry ten passengers. Even for those lucky enough to survive, their reward is a lifetime of guilt and the patriotic adoration of citizens who can’t possibly fathom the horrors they endured.
Structurally, Dunkirk more closely resembles a survival thriller than a traditional war movie. It has more in common with Ridley Scott’s sci-fi Alien (1979), for instance, than John Ford’s war drama, They Were Expendable (1945). The monsters of war stalk their prey mercilessly, driving them out to sea, only to crush them beneath a hail of gunfire and drowning waves. There is no escape from the terror, only the momentary comforts of a few crusts of stale bread and the silent companionship of your doomed brethren.
Adding to the atmospheric suffocation is Hans Zimmer’s throbbing score. Less percussive than previous collaborations with Nolan, Zimmer’s music churns just beneath the surface; like a machine grinding everyone and everything into pieces. Employing an auditory illusion called a Shepard Tone, Zimmer and Nolan create a feeling of movement where none actually exists. These characters, so thoroughly trapped by circumstance, can’t even escape the ceaseless drone of Zimmer’s orchestration.
Nolan’s meticulous attention to detail and insistence upon using practical effects whenever possible lend a disconcerting realism to Dunkirk. Thousands of extras and old fashioned cardboard cutouts belie the need for computer generated soldiers, while period accurate ships and airplanes create authentic military armadas. It’s impossible to find the seams between practical and special effects, with Nolan masterfully matching location shots and artificial sets. The final result is so jarring — so utterly realistic and convincing — that the imagery is bound to haunt you.
More haunting is the relentless pacing. Along with his frequent editor, Lee Smith, Nolan never allows you (or his characters) to take a breath. It’s a relentless two hour chase in search of a resolution that will never come. Nolan has always emphasized intercutting between multiple story threads, but here, each of those threads carry a dramatic heft that make the tension nearly unbearable.
This leaves precious little time for chit chat. Even conspicuous stars like Hardy and Cillian Murphy (as a stranded seaman) have but a few lines of dialogue. Occasionally, Kenneth Branagh (as ‘Commander Bolton’) briefs his commanding officers on the status of Operation Dynamo, but Nolan largely resists his tendency toward lengthy exposition. The acting, instead, is naturalistic and muted. Lifelong friendships are forged with only a look, and complete strangers help to bury fallen comrades on the beach. There’s nothing to say when words can’t adequately describe the awfulness.
Dunkirk is a masterpiece of understated terror and overwhelming realism. As at times uplifting and beautiful as it is unrelenting, it tells a simple story that unites everyone in the most basic of objectives: survive to fight another day. It seems the only attribute more powerful than Man’s desire to build inescapable traps of warfare is the will to escape them.