Dunkirk is a wonder.
Christopher Nolan movies are an experience. They aren’t structured in typical narrative fashion; they’re visually rich; they’re puzzle boxes, requiring investment of time and energy. “Dunkirk” is no different in these respects. What makes it different is one thing Nolan has never truly explored: quiet.
That’s an odd word to describe a film with a booming score, sound design ratcheted up so that every gunshot stuns the audience, explosions that rock the theater. But it’s the quiet heroism of the men who saved the British army at Dunkirk, and the human necessity for survival that prompted acts of both cowardice and courage, that stays with you long after you leave the theater.
The film itself follows three storylines: the mole (the beach), where men wait to be saved or die in German assaults; the sea, where a British man, his son, and a last-minute hanger-on sail toward Dunkirk to save the soldiers; and the air, where two pilots try to protect the British ships below from deadly Nazi air attack. The stories are interwoven, but in a brilliant way that doesn’t reveal itself immediately.
The cinematography suggests beautiful sparseness: queues of men waiting patiently on a godforsaken beach to die or be rescued, lost in their thoughts of home; shots of lone RAF fighters soaring over glittering waters as their fuel tank runs low; a British man and his son sailing across the horizon, following a faraway column of smoke that spells military disaster. Each of these people is alone, too: alone to fight the nameless, faceless enemy; alone to face down his own mortality and weakness. This is a movie that begs to be seen in 70 mm, on the big screen. A rental won’t do it justice.
Dunkirk doesn’t bother with backstory. You never really get to know the characters. All that matters is what they do in the moment. That, in Nolan’s view, is the essence of war, and perhaps of life. Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, a stiff-upper-lip British man with a boat and a son he’s taking with him to save the stranded soldiers, conveys a haunting pain and a stolid unwillingness to surrender; Kenneth Branagh, as Commander Bolton, overseeing the “mole” – the beach bridge where men are crammed, awaiting ships, represents both the futility of the enterprise and the desperate need to carry it through; Tom Hardy, acting with a flight mask over his face for most of the film, carries the task through with his eyes alone. This movie does not rest on dialog; it could have been nearly entirely silent, except for the sounds of war. The visuals are enough, and so is the acting.
The score, too, is effective. It’s not soaring. It’s not dramatic. It’s merely a steady ticking that ratchets up tension over time, reminding us that the clock is running out.
And Nolan, of course, structures the entire film in a unique way that shouldn’t be spoiled.
The movie isn’t a traditional war epic. You don’t learn much about the men who are fighting or fleeing; you never see the Nazis; you never feel the precise pain of watching someone you know deeply suffer. But you suffer with the men nonetheless, and you feel the burden of history they carry even when they make it home. Nolan’s final incredible directorial choice – his use of Churchill’s “fight them on the beaches” speech, but not Churchill’s voice – is a tribute to the fact that the men of Dunkirk would save their country and indeed, the world, and that history rested on them and their quiet stories of heroism.