Dunkirk is an audacious and brutalising war picture that shell shocks with a furious invention and skilled cinematic craftsmanship. Told in a triptych structure: the film depicts the Dunkirk evacuation from the perspective of three Spitfire pilots who patrol the skies near the beach clearance area, two young soldiers’ harrowing struggle to survive and a veteran seaman who decides to take his leisure boat to help with the war effort.
Christopher Nolan’s films are like the carefully constructed internal parts of a pocket watch: each piece is meticulously considered for its function and how it fits together to create the edifice of a movie. At the same time, his non-linear narratives impress with their presentations of time and its relationship with cinematic form. With Dunkirk, it feels as though Nolan has taken a hammer to the pocket watch and it has shattered into a thousand pieces. The ensuing effort is fascinating.
Dunkirk’s anarchic and disjointed structure illustrates the chaotic nature of war and its moment to moment uncertainty. Throughout the film, many of the principal characters have a peripheral awareness of the greater machinations that underpin the rescue effort. Consequently, there is a striking immediacy to many of the sequences. Plane engines become sweeping hurricanes of tensions as they swoop over the heads of waiting soldiers and bullet fire is a startling reminder of the foggy and undiscerning nature of the struggle.
Surprisingly, Dunkirk owes a debt to Nolan’s excellent 2008 film, The Dark Knight. In particular, the British director repurposes the moral quandaries of a set piece that was in the third act of that picture. The scene in question involved two ferries: the first has hardened criminals and the second contains a large assortment of civilians. Under a time limit, one of the groups has to trigger the bomb to blow up the other boat otherwise both sets of people die at midnight. In Knight, the situation is a battle for Gotham City’s soul as it decides whether it gives into its worst tendencies to survive.
In Dunkirk, Nolan shows that war brings out the worst aspects of the human condition and the picture has many sequences where our resolve is tested. An especially harrowing scene depicts ugly infighting among a group of soldiers as they are slowly sinking in a ship that has repeatedly been shot at by the German forces. Nolan purposefully makes the soldiers seem similar looking so that most of them give in to the fear of the other as one quiet infinity man is viciously accused of being part of the enemy’s army. The confined paranoia and tension make the scene an exercise in experiential film-making.
In fact, to call Dunkirk a tour de force of spectacle cinema is to undervalue its real power. The film succeeds more in showing the audience the soul crushing realities of war and in so doing asks us to consider our reactions in such situations. One scene near the end of the film shows an air pilot warning a ship’s captain of incoming danger that could result in the death of his entire crew.
However, the pilot realises that his warning cannot save the lives of an entire battalion who are going to be burnt to death. Nolan portrays this scene with terrifying clarity as a point of view shot from underwater is accentuated with flickers of fire and bullets as many of the British troops look up and discover there is no salvation.
Nolan’s most potent point is that heroism does not necessarily come from survival, but compassion and understanding even in the midst of tragedy. His characters always indulge in a comforting lie that soothes their psyche and soul. In one of the storylines of the picture, this motif is subverted by a man who distorts the truth about a devastating occurrence that has befallen him to alleviate the fears of a broken man who has been permanently scarred by his experiences in the war. The altruistic action speaks to the strength of the picture in understanding its characters’ shaken plights.
Fundamentally, Dunkirk has a genuine emotional truth that both horrifies and enlightens in the same breath.