“We’re trying to disturb the natural rhythm of these war movies. We’re trying to disturb the established rhythm of the blockbuster.”
“He’s not himself. He may never be himself again.” Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) is doing his best to explain to his teenaged son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) what it means to be “shell-shocked”. This as they stand over the U-boat attack survivor (Cillian Murphy) they’ve just picked up, now crouched on the deck of their small yacht, en route from Dorset to Dunkirk, bearing life jackets for Allied soldiers. When the survivor learns that the yacht is headed to Dunkirk, he’s horrified. “I’m not going back there,” he says more than once. “If we go there, we’ll die.”
But “back there” is exactly where he and Dunkirk are going. Christopher Nolan’s movie takes up the simultaneous defeat and success of the Battle of Dunkirk, which remains an unnerving exemplar of war writ large, as experience and idea. When the Germans trapped some 400,000 British and Allied forces on the beach beginning on 26 May 1940, the Royal Navy — embodied here by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) — initiated a massive evacuation over 11 days, at the same time that the Nazis continued attacking their targets “like fish in a barrel”, as Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) puts it.
The survivor is one of these targets, escaped. The loss of self that Mr. Dawson describes is illustrated in the survivor’s first moment on screen, adrift in a long, long shot, surrounded by endless blue water and sky. He’s escaped Dunkirk, however temporarily. This is but one of three sections in this film’s innovatory structure, sections introduced one by one early in the film, occurring in different times and places. The yacht is at the center of a section called “The Sea”, wherein the Dawsons, along with Peter’s classmate George (Barry Keoghan), take a day to deliver life jackets to British troops trapped in the port city of Dunkirk, where another section, “The Mole”, is set, over a week. Named for the concrete jetty extending into Dunkirk Harbor, this section opens the film, as a group of soldiers, including Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), make their way through cobbled streets, as leaflets dropped by the Germans flutter like snow, warning the Brits that they are “surrounded”.
These leaflets allude poetically to the third section, “The Air”, featuring a squad of Spitfire pilots, including Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), who engaged over the course of an hour in a series of dogfights, rendered as gorgeous, soaring choreography, with the Luftwaffe. (“Keep an eye on that gauge even when it gets lively,” the pilots are warned by radio,” Make sure you have enough to get back.”) Where the “Air” and “Sea” sections each focuses on a few figures, “The Mole” tends to offer long shots of many men, lined up on shore and waiting, or making their way to ships intended to take them away.
Repeatedly, Commander Bolton issues evacuation orders, only to see them explode, literally and figuratively. The camera follows hundreds of young men as they file into a space below-deck on a ship, only to be blown up. Or again, you see a smaller number of soldiers hiding inside a beached boat, waiting for the tide to take them. As unseen Germans start taking target practice at the boat, bullet holes become thin shafts of light — bing bing bing — and the men inside do their best to avoid being hit. When the tide does come in, they scramble to find their way out, as water leaks inside, the closeness of the camera and the darkness of the space evoking the men’s escalating panic.
Such scenes indicate the experiential contradictions of this Battle of Dunkirk, which is to say, disarray and loss of direction, focus, and time, as well as loss of balance, self, and, of course, lives. Dunkirk‘s ordering and disordering of these contradictions over multiple times and places eventually brings them together even as it twists them apart. Sometimes, these formal tricks, this temporal dislocation and circularity, recall Nolan’s other movies, sensational rides premised on intellectual puzzles, for instance, Memento, Inception or Interstellar.
War itself is the primary character; the selves are increasingly abstract (the survivor has no name and Farrier doesn’t even show his face until movie’s end), while their experiences become more expansive and shifting. The effects are less realistic than they are thrilling and entrancing, a set of sensory adventures alluding to World War II movie tropes, from dogfights to infantry movements to young men’s solemn conversations. But the movie also turns these tropes inside out to articulate a broader theme, not only the truism that war is excruciating, but more profoundly, that war is always the same, that it repeats, that it cannot be won.
Indeed, each section of Dunkirk finds its own means to repetition. In “The Sea”, the “weekend sailors”, as the survivor calls them, find more and more men in need of rescuing (a way to get at the historical story, that some soldiers were brought home on small boats from England). In “The Air”, the pilots shoot and shoot and swoop and swoop, only to find themselves in the same sky, facing the same infinity, the same problem of needing to “get back”.
Perhaps most disconcerting are the returns in “The Mole”, as each scene on the edge where the sea meets the land, the tide coming in and out. The beach is an end and a beginning, where men are trapped and where they yearn to leave. Asked how he knows the tide is “turning”, one soldier explains, “The bodies come back.” The restless camera takes a pause here, cutting from his face to a shot of several dark forms washing up on shore. However men come back from war, Dunkirk insists, they’re never again “themselves”.