‘Now that’s why I voted leave!’ – woman leaving the cinema, fists aloft, yelling.
Dunkirk is a highly cerebral film which explores the strange rituals of the military and the dehumanising process of war. In it, director Christopher Nolan delivers set pieces that are hard to believe could be achieved. In it, Hans Zimmer finally lives up to his potential for Tangerine-Dream-for-Michael-Mann style Krautrock soundtrack: throbbing, industrial, repetitive, with the tension of the modernist composers. Dunkirk has a roaring sound design and visual splendour as powerful in IMAX or 70mm as on a digital projector, as I’m sure they will be at home.
It also has a vast blankness and human indifference that makes it an easy picture onto which to place one’s own ideology. In choosing not to depict the Nazis, referring to them only in the opening crawl at ‘The Enemy’, a marked attempt would appear to have been made by director Christopher Nolan to depoliticise the film.
The beach is a liminal space of unknowing, established by two large columns which frame it as a theatre of sorts. Bombs fall, the soldiers hit the deck, it explodes, the ones who can get back up and resume their prior activity. Here the wanton logic of who may survive is exposed. When two privates pick up a stretcher with an injured man, they gain entry to the front of the queue. Holding a man who is going to die anyway gives them a status which forces other men just like them, with the same hair colour and cut, to move out of their way. It is a remarkably non-chaotic depiction of British people queuing for their turn to die.
While they wait on the beach, boats travel through the channel from England, equally unknowing about what will await them on the beach. Here is played a jarringly out of place sub-plot about a boy who hops on Mark Rylance’s boat only to fall down the stairs and die before they are even halfway to their destination. Though this event is fairly mundane compared to the high octane beach sequences, it may hold the key to Dunkirk’s meaning. In the end, it is this boy who is singled out by the newspaper as a hero of Dunkirk, despite having never reached it or ever wearing a uniform. Nolan highlights the irony of individual experience standing for a larger symbol of hope, in a way familiar to the ending of The Dark Knight.
Then in the sky, Tom Hardy is a participant observer. Flying a Spitfire, attempting to protect his people with a limited view, He watches objects, events from other scenes at a remove, and then impacts them greatly.
Is this an anti-war movie as much as its an anti-people movie? Nolan almost doesn’t see himself in these characters in the same way that he surely is the DiCaprio’s role in Inception. Rather, he leaves empty characters for the audience to project themselves onto, forcing us to empathise while remaining cold himself. There is the strange symbiosis of the individual and collective experience. Most characters are not given a distinct personality through arbitrarily inserted backstory, but rather their traits are hinted at through action and choices. Even this is put into doubt by the Cillian Murphy character, who we see shell-shocked: violent, paranoid, before a glimpse of him in another time-frame presents him as the well spoken positivist British gent. The stiff upper lip falls.
This may be why I keep hearing the phrase ‘more an experience than a movie’ used about this film, a somewhat reductive statement which suggests that a movie needs to be a certain way anyway.
If anything, the actors are closer to audience-vessels than characters. When we learn backstory for Mark Rylance, it is to draw a parallel between him and another character. Likewise, the Cillian Murphy flashback in which he briefly meets the younger men draws to attention the very arbitrary structure of creating a fictional narrative for a true event. Nolan wisely spreads his ensemble to the edges, using their best traits as his tools: Kenneth Branagh reciting exposition like Shakespeare; Harry Styles’ boyish arrogance; Tom Hardy’s expressive eyes; Mark Rylance’s bumbling old man wisdom. These can be grating over a whole film, but as dressing it works to pull the viewer through the experience.
There is however a cheese dessert in the final ten minutes of the film. As the boats come in and nakedly patriotic music plays, the relief if palpable. But in his dedication to the specific experiences of his vessels, the scale of the rescue itself is incompatible with what we are shown. A few shots of men leaping into small boats, and then Kenneth Branagh stating that 300,000 men have been rescued. For a film that is so meticulously pieced together by Nolan and editor Lee Smith, this nearly derails the film. The verisimilitude is also broken late on by a glaringly obvious CGI shot of the plane gliding towards the earth. But this jarring image seems like Nolan’s defamiliarising process to wake his audience out of the film’s intense stupour.
Call it Nolan’s Paths of Glory, his All Quiet on the Western Front, his Saving Private Ryan. But Dunkirk is a singular experience that raises the bar for what we should accept from a war movie.