Christopher Nolan revisited: Dunkirk (2017)

Many soldiers clustered together in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk.
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2017’s Dunkirk is the closest Christopher Nolan has come to making survival horror – but it’s also another of his films that’s full of hope.

Audiences quite understandably consider Dunkirk a war film – quite possibly one of the great war films of our age. Christopher Nolan’s tenth picture is perhaps an even better survival horror movie, given it takes a well known piece of 20th century history and pitches the story as a desperate battle for survival against a powerful, largely unseen and intractable foe.

From the very first frame of isolated and beaten British troops walking down a deserted Dunkirk street, as flyers depicting the German advance on their position rain down on them in almost endless supply, a terrifying pallor of dread and ominous doom casts its shadow over Nolan’s picture. This is a war the ‘good guys’ are losing – in terms of France, one they have already lost – and all they can do now is run from the darkness that is pursuing and engulfing them. Nolan’s film, on the whole, couldn’t be less jingoistic; the British and their allies are terrified, broken and in a desperate situation.

Though far from being a film which wears any kind of political or social polemic on its sleeve, you’d be hard-pressed to not consider Nolan a pacifist after watching Dunkirk. Not perhaps since Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in 1998, and rarely in all of cinema with its legion and entire sub-genre of war movies, has any director portrayed the senseless horror and brutality of World War Two with such visceral, haunting power. Nolan’s world here isn’t one without hope, but it’s absolutely a war where good guys are complicated, and heroes don’t necessarily carry guns.

Nolan approaches the film from three distinct perspectives, all of them set between a week and an hour from the final evacuation of British troops from the French coastline in the German-besieged town of Dunkirk, in June 1940. The most striking aspect is that these perspectives don’t adhere to a linear narrative construct; events are on various occasions seen from alternative perspectives, which shine a different light on what’s happening, or add to an emotional or narrative beat. It is another example, after Inception, Interstellar and particularly Memento, where Nolan plays without our temporal perceptions. Not since Quentin Tarantino at his best has any filmmaker delivered a non-linear piece of storytelling better than Dunkirk.

Nolan makes a similar point when discussing the film in an interview with Time magazine:

I would say Dunkirk is my most experimental structure since Memento. I tried to give the audience an experience that will wash over them. They’ll sit back and—I won’t say enjoy the ride, because this is a very intense ride—but experience the film. I never want the audience to watch the film in an overly cerebral way. It’s not meant to be a puzzle. It’s meant to be an experience.

We have three quite distinct stories to follow. On the ground, at the mole on Dunkirk beach, we’re with a Private (Fionn Whitehead) who ends up part of a rag-tag collection of English and Scottish soldiers (including Harry Styles), who are desperately trying to survive on the beach. In the air, an RAF pilot (Tom Hardy, returning from Inception and The Dark Knight Rises) and his co-pilot are on their way to the beach, doing their best to destroy German Spitfires dropping payloads on the evacuation leaving Dunkirk, while conserving what fuel they have. And on a civilian boat, a local man (Mark Rylance), his son and their helping hand George set sail for Dunkirk intending to help evacuate troops.

Cillian Murphy as the Shivering Soldier in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk.

All three of these narratives are quite expertly woven together by Nolan’s script as he fully explores the terror of the situation at Dunkirk while exploring the moral questions and problems faced by many of the people on the ground. The privates, in the thick of avoiding German artillery, must try not to turn on each other as suspicion about quite literal moles raises its head; in the air, Hardy’s pilot has to weigh up the potential for his own sacrifice against what needs to be done to prevent bombing raids; and on the boat, Rylance’s civilian clashes with Cillian Murphy’s rescued, shellshocked soldier who is terrified at the prospect of returning into the fray. Murphy, a Nolan regular, and later scion of the very different WW2-era epic Oppenheimer, is brilliantly intense in the role.

As Nolan asks these questions, his directorial scope, editing, cinematography and sound design are nothing short of breathtaking. You’ve never heard a bullet this loud in a film before, every gunshot rips through you like it would a soldier. Hans Zimmer, as ever on composing duties, delivers a percussive, foreboding, crushing soundscape woven in with Nolan’s sound design which feels more like a horror movie score than a wartime blockbuster; a ticking clock resounds across his booming synthetic sounds that helps put the audience on edge, alongside Lee Smith’s relentless, compounding editing, in a way that rarely happens these days. It feels the most connected to Inception on an aural level, a film indeed Nolan initially envisaged as a horror concept. That cannot be coincidental.

Nolan used thousands of extras and filmed on the actual beaches of Dunkirk, and this authenticity shows. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography captures the spectacular, wide grandeur of the cold French beach lined with 400,000 British soldiers at the mercy of swooping German bombers, penned in by the German war machine which has completely taken the city behind them. Immersion is crucial, and Nolan truly makes you feel like you’re amidst the action, much like Spielberg did in the aforementioned Saving Private Ryan.

Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Memento
Previously: Revisiting Chistopher Nolan’s Insomnia
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Inception
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar

The reason it plays like survival horror is, firstly, because you never see the enemy, except in the air (and very briefly in a certain context toward the end). The Germans are a force of nature. This is most keenly felt at points such as Whitehead’s soldier being the only survivor as unseen German troops and tanks cut down his party on the Dunkirk streets, or when the squaddies are penned in on a leaking, capsized tug as bullets rip through the hull. Not visualising the German enemy in any real sense only serves to make them more terrifying as the kind of literal monster in the dark, able to pick you off at any time. Like all good horror, Nolan makes you afraid of what you never see.

He’s also increasingly interested these days in playing with characters in a seemingly no-win, hopeless scenario. If you didn’t know the Germans lost the war, Dunkirk would make you believe the British were done for; at one point Kenneth Branagh’s stoic Naval commander is told by a superior the reason the troops aren’t getting any reinforcements is because London are convinced what has happened to France will happen to Britain, and they need those resources for the next battle. Churchill conservatively hopes for 30,000 soldiers evacuated. The Prime Minister expects losses of over 350,000 British troops.

Troops on the beach in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk.

Nolan has played with these ideas before. You only have to look at how crime ravages Gotham City when Batman tries to leave protecting the people behind in The Dark Knight, the literal and sociological destruction of the city in The Dark Knight Rises, leading to a social revolution. Or the ecological, climate change warning of Interstellar, envisaging a world without food left to starve. In each scenario, we find men and women fighting impossible odds, whether it’s Bruce Wayne, back broken, raising an army to take back Gotham, or Matthew McConaughey’s desperate galactic, possible suicide mission to find planets worthy of human inhabitation.

In most of his films, Nolan is interested in taking us to the absolute brink of what we as humans can endure, and as Batman typified, he is far from interested in the concept of a holier-than-thou saviour who can rescue us. The reason he’s a liberal, not just a pacifist, is that he believes in the power of humanity coming together to help or save ourselves. Batman is the symbol, but Bruce Wayne doesn’t save Gotham alone, while McConaughey’s Cooper only finds truth and solace thanks to love and his universal connection to his daughter. In Dunkirk, it is the power of working together to survive which brings hope.

Towards the end, as those successfully evacuated reach home shores, an old man (played by Nolan’s uncle John Nolan in a cameo, having previously featured in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises) hands out blankets and tells the squaddies “well done”. One replies “we were just surviving” and the old man replies “that’s enough”. This is the central point of Dunkirk; throughout all of its tension, senseless death and points of seeming hopelessness, Nolan wants to make the point that only by coming together — whether that’s squaddies from different allied nationalities, combined air and sea efforts, or the role of brave civilians — we can survive and, perhaps, overcome.

One telling element, and something a few people have complained about, is that in Dunkirk you don’t really know the names of any of the characters. It’s easy to find out Rylance’s character is called Mr Dawson as it’s said in dialogue, but none of our other main players say each other’s names. Except for one. A 17 year old boy named George, whose story is perhaps the quietest but the most affecting across the entire picture, underlying not just that senselessness but also the complexity and sadness of a situation where good men, left tortured and changed by war, can do tragic things.

Now, it could just be economy on the part of Nolan, as this script, like its running time, is among the most sparse he’s ever delivered, but perhaps George is the most pronounced name for a reason. He represents the struggle, the loss, and the sacrifice and consequences of such a devastating thing as war. We see it in what it costs those men who do survive, whether literally, depending on their situation, or psychologically; nobody comes out of the Dunkirk evacuation the same. Nobody would have done. Nolan captures that change, often for the tragic, remarkably well.

For all the oppressive, ominous doom, the dark reality of war is captured with some incredible set design and set pieces involving sinking destroyers, beach explosions, injured soldiers ripped apart by guns and bombs. Despite the cloud of hopelessness that fills every frame, of a war machine utterly compromised and beaten by an unseen greater power. Despite the intense claustrophobia, senseless death and destruction, and constant feeling of dread. Despite all of these things, Nolan, as ever, has hope. He believes in the human spirit. He believes we can survive. He believes we can overcome.

Outside of my showing of Dunkirk when I first watched it in 2017, there was an old British Legion man, no doubt the son of one of these brave soldiers who could well have been part of the evacuation, selling poppies and raising money for charity. Nolan’s film stands to remain as timeless as the greatest of war films. Lest we forget, so the saying goes. Forget is one thing Christopher Nolan wants us never to do.

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