Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s exhaustive 1973 novel on the development of the V2 rocket begins with, “A screaming comes across the sky.” This sentence could well be the tagline of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The second sentence, “It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now,” could also apply, albeit in a modified context.
Nolan has made a career of working complex ideas into well known genres. With Memento he turned a neo-noir/crime film into a Moebius strip character study that people still inaccurately describe as backwards. With The Prestige he twisted a simple story of magicians into a psychological, science fiction thriller. With Inception he made an arthouse premise into a summer blockbuster. Interstellar brought established scientific fact (yes, climate change is scientific fact!) and fringe scientific theory (wormholes) into mainstream science fiction. And, of course, with The Dark Knight Trilogy he turned the superhero film into treatises on fear, chaos, and hope respectively. In Dunkirk, Nolan has once again crafted (and with Nolan, craft is very much at the center of everything) a well-known genre, in this case a World War II movie – the genre that it seems is a requirement of every British-born filmmaker – into something vastly different from expectation: an intimate war epic where retreat is victory. However, while often spectacular, and with the expert composition, pacing, and trickery that has allowed Nolan to build such a career, his latest work is his least since the delirious crime drama Insomnia. And if this paragraph has been hard for you to follow, you’ve likely never seen a Christopher Nolan film before or become thoroughly confused by them.
Dunkirk opens by following four soldiers walking down an emptied street as Nazi propaganda pamphlets rain upon them. This beautiful first shot emblemizes the confident camera work that Nolan always brings to his films, as well as one of the most striking differences between this and every other World War II movie in memory. While most other such films, especially those made in the last twenty years, have followed the Saving Private Ryan model of packing the screen with details, Dunkirk is often uncluttered. Instead of focusing on the narrow space between the heroes and their enemies, Nolan’s subjects exist as lone figures over vast stretches of land, sea, and air that, although I was unable to watch the film in IMAX, is nothing less than stunning. The endless span of ocean surrounding our tiny, tiny actors leaves their survival as much at the whim of indifferent nature as it does dodging enemy artillery.
As much as this lack of clutter works beautifully on-screen, it doesn’t work as well in a script where four characters are given names – I only remember two of them – and this is where Dunkirk falls apart. We know that Tommy (as IMBD names him since the film doesn’t) is our first lead character by the act of following him from the opening scene on despite being less of an engaging protagonist and more the default option. Just as the choice of which soldiers are allowed on the ships and toward safety seems arbitrary, the choice of “Tommy” as our lead character seems equally random. In short, we are given absolutely no reason to care about this one out of 300,000 soldiers other than the fact that we are watching him. Other characters, particularly Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, and Kenneth Branagh (I use the actor names because their characters don’t have any), are more interesting but so much of the film’s intensity is lost when we literally have no connection to the characters other than recognizing them among the thousands of similarly young British guys. We linger close to these characters, still at no point do we reach them. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker there would be no tension in watching the fate of these empty vessels unfold, but Nolan uses many of the same tricks of perspective which established Inception’s reality bending properties to ratchet up the tension to the point where the sound of a jet engine, the pop of a single machine gun round, and rising waters cause genuine horror. Imagine how much more nerve-wrecking these images would be if the audience actually cared about the people on screen.
The success of Dunkirk is as much a testament to Nolan’s mastery of his art as it is Hans Zimmer’s mastery of his. I rarely comment on music, and when I do it’s typically to either commend its absence or criticize its abuse (Suicide Squad anyone?) but Zimmer’s work in Dunkirk is as astonishing as anything the composer has done before, which is good considering the dialogue of the entire film probably wouldn’t fill five pages (it’s possible that Tom Hardy spoke more as Mad Max than as “Farrier,” and his face is shown just slightly more than it was as Bane). Even as the score is constant in its lulls, cascades, and flourishes, it’s never so much as to call attention to itself, creating a perfect compliment to what is on screen. If anything, the blend of visual and audio may call further call attention to just how empty the characters are since, although we are given no reason to value this soldier’s life over the dozens of others he’s trying to cut in front of, we do. Because that’s what the camera and the score tell us to do. In many ways Dunkirk is as much a work of manipulation as it is art, and Nolan, as we know, is a master.
Nowhere is this manipulation more evident than in the structure of Dunkirk’s story. This is of course another of Nolan’s hallmarks, not so much having complex structures, but convincing the audience that structures like those in Memento and Inception are overly complex when in fact they are quite simple. Personally, the way that many other reviewers have reacted to Dunkirk’s structure (which I will not describe so that others may figure it out for themselves) makes me wonder how closely those reviewers were paying attention or if they have any imagination of their own (it’s quite conspicuous that all the five-star reviews I’ve seen are from British reviewers). The ultimate outcome of the story is clear, or at least one in a very limited number of possibilities, by no later than halfway through. This predictability, once again, undercuts the intensity, making Dunkirk less a visceral experience and more a cerebral one.
A war film typically seeks to engage us emotionally through putting the characters we care about in danger (see my essay on Game of Thrones and Walking Dead for more on this), yet Dunkirk seems more interesting in pulling us in mentally. It’s unfortunate then that the actual ideas – the immensity and indifference of war, its psychological effects, the need for people to work together in order to survive, and of course, the requirement of every British-born filmmaker, rah-rah Britain – aren’t anything groundbreaking. The film itself is admirable as a display of craft and technique, particularly in its dog fights and bombing runs, but considering all that film is capable of, and all that Nolan is capable of, a work worthy of mere admiration is somehow unsatisfying. Bombers come screaming across the sky. It’s happened before, but what we have to compare it to, isn’t quite the same.
A great war epic should leave the audience exhausted. Dunkirk, as different as it may strive to be from other war epics (and its sub-two hour runtime reflects this) is less exhausting and more incomplete. Beautiful as the empty spaces are, there’s still so much that could have filled them in.