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Film Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk (2017; Directed by Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan’s first shot of the infamous beach of Dunkirk, France is fastidiously regimented and technically ordered, as is his habit and his wont. When a British Army private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), the last survivor of his retreating squad, stumbles onto the beach from which more than 330,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated to save them from the advancing German forces in late May and early June of 1940, he finds not chaotic terror and demoralized disarray, but orderly, geometrically-arranged columns of soldiers and materiel. Framed between rod-straight vertical flagpoles and the natural horizontal progression of beach, waterline, surf, sea, and sky, Nolan composes the notoriously desperate, frantic, and hellish Operation Dynamo as history’s grandest queueing exercise. This 70mm panorama view (like much of Nolan’s blockbuster work, the film was also shot and exhibited in IMAX, but never in dreaded, gimmicky 3D) of a pivotal event in human history’s deadliest war is carefully composed and impeccably clean. Even the sand on the beach appears to have been painstakingly raked; perhaps the BEF evacuees decided to do some calming zen gardening while they waited for rescue?

In case the observation being made is unclear, Nolan’s Dunkirk is predicated on a certain visual and functional incongruity from the hard-edged realities of the Second World War even while it strives to replicate the unbearable sensory tension of the war-zone experience. Jonathan Raban, in a perceptive piece on the film for The Stranger, notes that incongruity on the basis of the remembered experiences of his father, a survivor of Dunkirk. Raban recalls the memorable, five-minute tracking one-shot of the Dunkirk beach from Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement as a truer re-creation of the surreal horror and bedraggled absurdity of the evacuation, and indeed of the whole terrible, pitiful war. No less technically impressive than Nolan’s Dunkirk and a fraction of the length, the sequence in Atonement is infinitely psychologically (and, perhaps, artistically) deeper and richer.

This is not to say that Dunkirk is not excellent, potent, inherently impressive filmmaking. Or that its metronome-ticking rhythmic shifts between uneasy anticipation and smothering intensity are not, in their way, accurate representations of the lived experience of war. If Nolan’s controlled direction and fine shot-making, assisted by the cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema, can trespass into the too-perfect, the nigh-on precious, then other technical elements bring the full weight of craftsmanship and vision to bear with powerful affect. The sound design, in particular, is spectacular and extremely effective; when Luftwaffe planes make their first bombing and strafing pass over the sitting-duck soldiers on the beach, the roar of their engines is that of a swooping, avenging valkyrie, bent on soul-reaving. Shrill and penetrating, the sound evokes the terrifying sensation of an air assault better than any other film I can recall.

Since this is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, the story of the British soldiers’ peril and the efforts to evacuate them is told non-linearly. Cutting between events on the beach, on the sea, and in the air and covering the respective time of a week, a day, and an hour for each location, Dunkirk is arranged not by direct chronology but more in the interest of maximizing tension and impact. Characters’ dire predicaments – white-knuckle dogfights between RAF and Luftwaffe, escapes from sinking boats and planes, contentious bottle-episode dramas on board watercraft – are arranged to crescendo in concert with each other rather than for strict temporal or even thematic reasons. Hans Zimmer’s unsettled score of rising anticipation of disaster (while no match for his remarkable work for Nolan’s last film, Interstellar) contributes greatly to this overwhelming feeling of dread anticipation.

The tone and feel of Dunkirk is delineated so strong primarily because it must be, as its characters are purposely not. Plenty of capable and recognizable actors show up in the almost exclusively-male ensemble cast (a female nurse literally has a single line, and that’s it for women here). Frequent Nolan collaborator Tom Hardy is one of the RAF pilots (along with Jack Lowden), his face once again hidden behind a mask (a flight one, this time); Oscar-winner Mark Rylance is a weekend sailor who answers the Britain-wide call for small craft to ferry men from the beach at Dunkirk to the deeper-draught Royal Navy ships further offshore, and another Nolan fave, Cillian Murphy, is a traumatized officer he saves from the water; Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy are the commanding officers of the evacuation from the beach, while Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles (of One Direction fame) provide a grunt’s level view of the operation. Although all of Nolan’s actors inhabit their men-at-war archetypes convincingly and a couple of them even have something resembling an arc, the general intent is to depict men caught up in the larger sweep of the grinding war.

Dunkirk became a propaganda cause célèbre for Britain in the dark, dispiriting early days of WWII, a military debacle turned into a tempered victory and patriotic fodder for Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s legendary “we will fight on the beaches” speech to the House of Commons that steeled the nation for the forthcoming hunkering-down of the Battle of Britain. Although Nolan thrills and unnerves his audience by putting his characters in deadly peril, he does not telegraph their emotional responses with anything resembling the manipulative hand of, say, Steven Spielberg; the peril is impressionist, experiential, not necessarily empathetic in intent or effect.

The heroism celebrated in Dunkirk is of a stereotypically British stiff-upper-lip sort, driven by grim survivalism and undergirded always with firm, understated duty-bound commitment. Nolan does allow himself a moment or two of inspirational uplift: Hardy’s Spitfire heroics earn some throaty climactic cheers, as does the arrival of the greatly mythologized “little ships” at a moment of great despair for the evacuees. The latter scene is quite nearly indulgent and mawkish, with Branagh heralding the boats’ appearance with the word “Hope!” and Zimmer allowing his score to swell the heart just a bit. But the stoic eyes-forward poses of the flotilla crews save the moment from sentimentality; it’s on to the task, old chap, no need for fussing.

This focus on the task, on the ineffable realness of every moment onscreen, defines Dunkirk. It’s undeniably intense and immediate, resisting rote mythologizing almost (but not quite) to the last. Nolan’s approach and visual style can be a bit too clean and regimented to handle the full, ragged spectrum of the horrors of war, it’s true. But then human emotional trauma being smoothed over (erased, even) by sophisticated technical organization is also a vital part of the story of war, particularly of World War II, in which that organization, when combined with technological developments and mass mobilization of people, products, and ideas, produced great horrors on the battlefield and greater ones off of it. Dunkirk may not be especially good at representing the breadth and complexity of human history’s most cataclysmic conflict, but it is highly superior at drilling deep into the experience of a single, defining episode of that conflict and rendering it for a modern audience with powerful, intelligible clarity.

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