Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a film comprised of many intercutting moments — but the best of them doesn’t happen in France at all. It happens on a train, in England, where two shell-shocked survivors are arriving back into civilization after a stint on the barren, hellish beach of Dunkirk. One, named Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead), reads a speech by Churchill in a newspaper while his comrade Alex (Harry Styles) collects offerings of drinks and snacks through the train window.
It’s one of the few political moments in an otherwise timeless narrative — that is, Nolan has deliberately attempted to strip his story of historical cues to time and place, to the causes of the war and even the reason the men are on the beach. But that brief moment of context is by far the most heartbreaking in the film. “Dunkirk” is a two-hour long nail-biter of a tension-ratcheter a la “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and the propagandizing, rallying words of Churchill are bitterly crass in the face of what Tommy and the other 400,000 men and boys on the beach just experienced — they deserved something so much more empathetic, so much more understanding.
Capturing the experience of that event — in which hundreds of thousands of trapped Allied soldiers were rescued on the strength of primarily civilian boats — presents both technical and creative challenges, and Nolan brings to this film both his passion and his inventive form of narrative filmmaking.
The film is set to three intertwining timelines — one spanning around a week, another covering a day and the last only an hour. This unique structure allows Nolan to capture the oppressive vulnerability of the soldiers waiting days on end for rescue as the specter of the Nazi engine encroaches ever closer, while simultaneously engaging in the high-stakes, high-thrill excitement of an hourlong aerial dogfight in Spitfires.
Nolan, of any director working today, is best equipped to try and string these timelines together — and he’s mostly successful. There are cuts early on that seem jarring (for example, the initially deceptively linear narrative cutting between day and night shots), but slowly the threads coalesce in an inevitable, but still satisfactory conclusion, with the realization that the Spitfire dogfights (led by an always-masked Tom Hardy — can someone give this man more dialogue?) take place at the climax of the evacuation, which is also the culmination of the soldiers’ timeline and that of the civilian boat captain (Mark Rylance) who guides his small vessel across the channel to take part in the rescue.
There is little dialogue in any of these individual timelines — Nolan elects, perhaps at his peril, to let everything remain hidden behind the smallest gestures and expressions. We learn hardly any names — no backstories, no motivations. But war leaves little time for dialogue, and the wordless understanding between the soldiers, while one we may not be privy to, establishes a new way of telling war stories — one that focuses not on an “us vs. them” but on survival by any means.
Unfortunately, that decision leaves us with few emotional threads to grab onto — there’s a distant, clinical chill to the film that imbues it with a sense of emptiness. And that might be the point; we are seeing the stories of four or five people amid thousands, and their enforced anonymity reminds us that everyone around them is experiencing the same horror, that we could be watching anyone else’s story to the same effect. But in its cold and calculating portrayal, “Dunkirk” gives up on an opportunity to move us emotionally.
Instead, it attempts to move us through form — the much-hyped 70mm IMAX experience that places us, as if through virtual reality, into the claustrophobia-inducing scenery. And in that regard, “Dunkirk” is flawless. The aerial scenes of dogfighting are gritty, visceral, point-of-view masterpieces that incorporate real, flying aircraft and accurate physics to absolutely stunning effect.
In the water too, Nolan excels, taking advice from fellow directors and even developing IMAX rigs to enter the water. His dedication to practical effects — at one point he had 62 vessels in the channel at once — pays huge dividends. This film has not an inkling of the CGI nightmare that has plagued big-budget films of late. Every moment here feels real, and it’s a testament to Nolan and his team for taking the time to learn how to shoot in the ocean, on the beaches and in the skies.
It’s been noted that “Dunkirk” feels like an impressionist work, and there’s a lot of truth to the way it is constructed not around plot, instead focusing on fleeting moments, often pressed tightly against those in other timelines. In fact, that quiet scene of Tommy and Alex on the train is intercut with breathtakingly gorgeous shots of the pilot Farrier (Hardy) as he, having run out of fuel and saved countless lives from the air, tries to land on the beach at Dunkirk.
Farrier steps out and sets his Spitfire ablaze, the flames reflecting in his eyes. In that tiniest breath of a moment, we see a glimmer of the humanity behind the heroics. And upon reflection, the heart of “Dunkirk” is in those rare moments, tucked away in a film that for all its spectacle truly requires reflection — and perhaps multiple viewings — to appreciate in full.