Germans move in toward France. English troops on the ground, awash in a rain of leaflets detailing just how surrounded they all are. Gunfire commences, and a lone soldier makes it to the beach, where thousands upon thousands of troops await ocean rescue. Huddled together in tight formations, the day's calm often broken by the metal vultures overhead, more than eager to destroy all on the ground. The men grow tired, frazzled, fearful as their compatriots die, military vessels are downed, and only Navy commissioned civilian transports from tugs, to yachts, and trawlers inch ever closer to the embattled beach. Meanwhile, air support is minimal, and time is rapidly running out.
It is no bit of hyperbole here for me to say that over the last two decades, Christopher Nolan has become something of a mainstream favorite. So often blurring the line between auteur, and purveyor of high caliber commercial work. Always brimming with a unique eye for story, and often innovative use of story structure, that almost always raises the bar for literate filmmaking, if not of the entirely cinematic. To expound, his films, for all their visual sheen and love of noir elements, a majority of his stories tend to work like a puzzle, or a magic trick. The elements of a game under the constraints of an ever present clock has until now presented us with this nonlinear tendency, that while is thematically cogent, is rarely clockwork in the final analysis. Getting away with the kernel of truth at the center of his narratives has until now been one of his defining traits as a director.
With his first major dive into the purely historic, Nolan and crew have synthesized everything that has been made until this moment, into a triumphantly immersive experience that evokes an era of period drama we haven't seen in a generation; the wholly absorbent dream of history.
Uninterested in your classic central characters, turns, or blunt proclamations via the cast, DUNKIRK, is by all accounts closer to a tension drenched docu-drama of the lives that were for a moment united by crisis;
Via the troops on the ground (Fionn Whitehead & Harry Styles), scrambling to get aboard a vessel- any vessel, to get them home. Home, which is so readily visible to those of both the Navy and Army(James D'Arcy & Kenneth Branagh), being told that there are to be no destroyers to come save them. Patience versus the escalating fear of the men.
Their ordeal: One Week
Via civilians answering the call from Churchill; a father(Mark Rylance), and his two young teenage sons Peter & George(Tom Glynn-Carney & Barry Keoghan), heading out without the Navy acquiring his boat, stocked with life preservers to recover as many soldiers as possible. Without weapons, and driven by a deep need to do something-anything to help, are countered by a shivering soldier a few miles out to sea(Cillian Murphy), who would do anything never to head back to the beach.
Their Journey: One Day
Via the men of the Royal Air Force, particularly of fighter pilot, Farrier(Tom Hardy), who's one hour of fuel time is only dedicated to protect vessels on the ground. Take out enemy aircraft that might pose an imminent threat. With fellow pilot, Collins(Jack Lowden), the airspace near Dunkirk is fraught with danger, has nowhere near enough air support.
His Mission: One Hour
All three corners of the conflict from ground, sea, and air comprise of the entire film's runtime, as the Germans veer ever closer to wiping out the English presence with incessant bombs, torpedoes, and gunfire. An enemy as abstraction rather than a character. We weave almost seamlessly between these corners as docked boats are sunk, tensions run high on the rescue front, and morale wavers between low and distrustful. Troops find shelter in a beached vessel on an intertidal, not knowing it is well away from English perimeter, and that snipers might be near. Meanwhile, enemy aircraft are few, but seem to emerge like ghosts as fuel and artillery begin to dwindle. With a hazy sky, the entire area between Dunkirk and home, seems uncertain. Every sense of calm, deceptive. Every hair breadth turn, an invitation to a new form of terror.
The central aim for all - survive.
All while German forces continue to enforce what resembles a vise-grip over everyone within several kilometers.
Nolan, crew, and cast help create an atmosphere of tension from frame one. We aren't informed of the politics of the situation. There is no one character with whom we are designated to see the entire story through. Nor, are we provided speeches designed to fully justify who being where and why. Part documentary, part horror film, and part all-analog, virtual reality re-enactment, Dunkirk offers us a chance to fill in the blanks by becoming every character onscreen. When matters have become this dire, and the world seems on the verge of total collapse, sometimes the only true choice is to save lives.
And this is at the heart of Dunkirk. It isn't about victory over a phantom enemy. It isn't about who is right. It isn't about pumping fists over a moral superior at odds with unfathomable evil. It's about what we do when faced with helping those who are surrounded on all sides, unsure of what the future might hold. We see it in Syria, not to mention so many other parts of the world where there are so many displaced human beings. Closer to an elemental drama of human survival, Dunkirk also has the distinction of evoking memorable siege narratives of the past, and we're talking beyond the war film. From Das Boot to Jaws, to even Antarctica, and even Last Of The Mohicans, there is a thread of the God's Eye, ever mindful of the events unfolding. And with Nolan being the digital luddite he can be, the film further reaches levels of suspense with a tactile nature that is refreshingly old hat, yet grand. Human beings submerged after vessels capsize, emergency landings, fire on the ocean, and the sudden shock of the sound of battered metal from airborne rounds. The film is a testament to taking the hard road toward replaying history. It's enormous as an experience. And yet, it never forgets that such grandeur, doesn't work without the quiet human moments to punctuate everything that happens. The film doesn't skimp on the most necessary notes.
Lastly, binding the whole together, are the cinematography by second-timer, Hoyte van Hoytema (Let The Right One In, and Interstellar), which is an extraordinary combination of handheld, and haunting IMAX imagery, often stunning nonlinear editing by Lee Smith, which occasionally grants us more than one perspective of a major event from multiple perspectives, and of course, an incredible minimal score by Hans Zimmer. Easily one of his most experimental accompaniments to date, the score is a spectral, ominous ocean of bending drones, bulkhead impacts, and endless ticking courtesy of Nolan's own pocket watch. Been playing it endlessly since I saw the film, and it is easily up there with one of his very best. Especially as it later evokes the films I mentioned with an almost VANGELIS level of synth etherealism.
All elements combine to present us with a Nolan we have never truly seen before; a purely cinematic one. Dialogue, for once is pure texture of the era and of military speak functionality. And the actions of every performer speaks volumes in ways that his films have admittedly rarely done. It's the kind of filmmaking that takes a great deal more precision and faith in one's cast to deliver. And as such, it feels like a long time coming. There are so few filmmakers left to possess this level of clout, yet are willing to invite us in quite like this outside of the independent world. And for a summer offering, we certainly lucked out. While for now, it may rank among my favorites of his entire filmography, something tells me Dunkirk is bound to have a long, and significant shelf-life with many. The kind that can only increase in importance over time.
It's that good.
Bound by a shared desire for simple survival.