Dunkirk (2017)

Directed by Christopher Nolan


Dunkirk is a tense viewing experience.  It places you right there in the cockpit, on the beach, in the sinking battleships, underwater and in the small civilian boats.  It’s another one of Christopher Nolan’s IMAX landscapes, large in scope yet ultimately intimate in character.  Dunkirk is about the mass rescue of hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers from across the English channel, but to make that matter it has to be about specific characters.  A few of these men are young soldiers, including one played by Harry Styles (of One Direction fame), but two of the most important characters are Mark Rylance, a civilian hero, and Tom Hardy, the silent pilot, the guardian we’d all like to have in our lives.

This movie is, again, an experience.  It plays like an opera in some ways, likely because the music seems constant throughout.  It’s in the background, pulsating and ticking away, but then it swells when things are grand and nosedives when things are frightening.  It’s a story about very clear good versus very clear evil, but the evil is rarely seen with a human face.  In other war movies there is an attempt to blur the lines between good and evil, particularly in more modern films, because the soldiers on each side are simply carrying out a duty.  They’re not good or bad, just people put in a bad situation (this is almost always true except for the racist, simplistic depiction of “the enemy” in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, particularly during the seppuku scene, which I maintain is a horrible movie).

In other war films we see the face of the enemy, their expressions, their sweat, their fear.  But here the enemy is more ominous and simple, just planes in the sky or submarines creeping beneath the sea like the shark in Jaws.  There is no need to humanize the enemy because this is less of a war film and more of a survival film.  The characters on the French beaches are more similar to characters in a horror or natural disaster movie. They’re not fighting, just surviving.

The movie is broken down into three intermingling stories.  There are the soldiers on the beach whom we follow through Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and the silent Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), the savior in the sky (Tom Hardy) who very silently and steadily pushes back against the enemy before eventually falling into their hands like a sacrificial lamb, and finally there is Mark Rylance and two boys sailing into war to save their soldiers.

Each movie could be broken down into an effective short film.  The most plotted one is the first, following Tommy and Gibson, and it’s the story with the most suffocating moments.  Tommy is the first person we meet as he and a few other soldiers wander down the streets near the Dunkirk beach.  Quickly they are attacked, and Tommy is the only one who escapes.

At the beach he meets Gibson, burying a dead body but having also taken the dead man’s boots among, likely, other things.  Tommy observes him but doesn’t judge.  Instead they bury the body together and move on.  All that matters is staying alive.

Soon they devise a plan to sneak onto a battleship set to take off, evacuating a large number of soldiers.  They pick up a gurney and a dying man and hope this good will can get them a spot onboard.  It does, for a time, before they are kicked off.  Soon that battleship is sunk, and Tommy and Gibson help pull drowning soldiers to safety, including Alex (Harry Styles).  Together they are hurried into another boat which is torpedo’d later that night.

In that sequence, very hard to stomach if you’re one of those people who doesn’t like the idea of drowning in a small and dark space, Gibson saves their lives by opening the door to allow them to swim out.  Gibson remained on the outside of the ship for fear of that exact thing happening.

Later the three of them board another small boat in which they must wait for the riding tide in order to make it to see.  Bullets start flying, and tensions flare.  Alex turns on Gibson, realizing that he hasn’t said a work and thus must be some kind of spy.  It’s a moment that highlights the desperation these soldiers feel as survival becomes not just a you versus the elements thing but also you versus yourself.  Still, it’s a sequence that feels unnecessary to the movie.

Gibson reveals that he is French and had stolen the identity of a dead British soldier, not with any malicious intent, rather just to survive.  When the ship sinks, though, he is pulled under and drowns.  Later, Alex and Tommy will be saved by Mark Rylance and his boat.

Mark Rylance is the king of cool, I’d wager.  He’s a very charming, charismatic actor, and he feels like the type of guy who you’d imagine coming for your rescue, even if that meant you broke a heel walking down the street or have a kitten stuck in a tree.  He’s so damn likable, and his character in Dunkirk is all about doing the right thing.  He sails his small boat into war with his son and his son’s friend, George.  When they pick up the pilot of a crashed plane (Cillian Murphy), they continue going forward even when the pilot demands that they turn around.  Dunkirk is death, he says, but steady Mark Rylance carries on.

Later the pilot will try to forcibly turn the boat around, and in a brief scuffle he knocks George to the ground, giving him a nasty, unexpected head wound which first blinds him and later kills him.  I’d suppose this is the human cost of war, the move might be saying.

On their way towards Dunkirk they pick up another crashed pilot, this one much less shell-shocked than the first, and later they will pick up the swimming soldiers (including Alex and Tommy) from another sinking ship.  In that final sequence, the soldiers are swathed in oil from the shipwreck, and when a German plane is shot down, the fire spreads to the oil, nearly latching onto Rylance’s ship.  They get away, and Rylance has one last heroic/fatherly moment when he tells the second pilot, after he’s insulted by another soldier who mistakes his cleanliness for a lack of involvement in the war, that “these men” know what he did.  Rylance should be a therapist too.

The other story is in the sky with Tom Hardy, mostly masked like his character in The Dark Knight Rises.  Like Rylance, Hardy is a very reassuring presence, not just in the movie but probably in life too.  He plays some wild, crazy characters (The Dark Knight RisesRevenantBronson), but he also plays characters like the one here, silent types who do the right thing and save your ass.

Hardy plays Farrier, one of three pilots who fly over the Channel to combat the German planes which bomb the fleeing soldiers on the Dunkirk beaches.  The first two are picked off, and it’s left to Farrier to fend off the remaining German planes he comes into contact with.  These are some of the most rousing scenes in the movie.  Even Rylance’s character says that the most soothing sound in the world is that of the engines of the British planes, and when they zoom by overhead you can’t help but feel the grandeur of the scene.

Eventually Farrier runs out of fuel, an expected consequence of his heroics, but he has enough left in the tank to shoot down one final plane right over the beach.  This last action makes him not just a hero to the audience but to his own soldiers as well, and it’s chilling (in a good way) to watch the soldiers on the beach cheer for their savior.  Farrier is Jesus, basically, and when he safely lands his plane he is taken prisoner by the enemy. He is Batman I suppose.

So Dunkirk is a movie about the human spirit.  Civilians, soldiers of different countries and pilots all work together to survive.  Alex, when they get back home, is ashamed of their retreat, but the country celebrates it.  Sometimes surviving is enough.

This film is thrilling and must be seen in the movie theater.  Like other Nolan films, it’s made to be seen on the big screen.  This doesn’t necessarily mean it is style over substance (though perhaps it’s close), but Nolan and his team do such an impressive job of making something along the lines of pure cinema.  There isn’t a whole lot of talking, and when there is it doesn’t really matter to the story.  Nolan’s dialogue, I’d argue, has never been a strength of his.  Many of the lines here are expository or intended to be rousing but come off as a little cheesy.

The best moments of the film are unspoken.  The story begins with papers floating through a deserted street.  The papers warn the Allied troops that the enemy has them surrounded.  Then bullets fly, startling you since the enemy is unseen, and like that we’re off.  The movie is about a feeling, the terror and suspense of what’s happening, and Nolan conveys it so well with sound, music, the cinematography, everything.

One of the most striking shots can be seen in the trailer.  We look at the faceless mass of men waiting for rescue on a long pier.  They are all the same, dressed in identical uniforms, covered in identical helmets.  A plane slowly rumbles somewhere in the background, and one face turns up to see what it is.  Then a couple more, then a few more, and suddenly all of them turn to watch the enemy close in.

Christopher Nolan does such a tremendous job of creating these moments of dread, and they never require any speaking.  Perhaps making this film an entirely silent one would feel a bit gimmicky, but I think it might’ve worked.  Most of the talking, in fact, seems to come at the end when Tommy reads the newspaper article about the rescue at Dunkirk.  It’s more of an epilogue to the story, making sure we understand the full effect of this rescue effort.

But for the most part these are men silently trying to survive or fulfilling a sense of duty.  Making it more silent has the effect of making their actions feel almost instinctual, like Rylance and Hardy never had a choice or even a second thought about what they were doing, it’s just what they know they have to do.

So Dunkirk is fantastic, probably the best film of the year so far.  There are still a few ‘movie’ moments which feel a little tired or formulaic, but as a whole this movie is lean (well under two hours), and everything about it is so beautiful and passionate.  Nolan shot this in 70mm film, and he’s one of the most powerful advocates of film versus digital (along with Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson).

The most important effect of this film might be what it says about ‘film’ as a whole.  This is a valuable art form, and even though there may be plenty of good movies that go straight to Netflix, the movie theater experiences is something else.  It’s special.  Nolan’s films are meant to be experienced with a group, on a large screen.  It’s communal, about the audience as much as the people onscreen.

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