Imagine you’re a soldier, standing on a beach, being whipped by the cold wind rolling off the sea. Behind you, the Enemy’s soldiers and tanks are advancing, slowly but surely. In front of you, nothing but 50 miles of water separate you from home, keeping you stuck in place. Below you, rest the graves of your countrymen.
And to your sides, 400,000 other soldiers just like you, waiting for deliverance.
War films have long captured the brutality and horror of war. Films such as Saving Private Ryan (1998) or Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016) sear themselves into the minds of viewers with their horrific displays of war’s violent reality. Rarely, however, can a film capture a sensation of pure helplessness in the way that Dunkirk does. In most war movies, the protagonists can fight back, no matter how strong the enemy. At Dunkirk, this is not an option for the stranded British soldiers; laid out along the beach, they have no option but to duck and pray as Enemy bombers strafe the ground. When the rare British Navy vessel does arrive, boarding it is a gamble, as the only ticket home is also the primary target of the persistent and brutal Enemy.
Throughout the film, there are very few references to the Germans, and they are only identified as “the Enemy”. While this may seem peculiar for a World War II film, the omission of the Enemy’s name is fitting, given the Enemy’s total omnipresence. For a man with a gun to his head, it matters not who has put it there; the mortality of the situation remains the same. This archetypal narrative is useful for communicating the pathos of the film to American audiences, who are used to war films about American history and heroes.
Director Nolan does not leave the gun unfired. As with the aforementioned war films, Dunkirk features violent scenes that instill fear in the audience. The film is chaotically loud, with no evident attempts to shield the viewer’s senses from the sonic mayhem of battle. Roaring plane engines and deafening explosions characterize the Enemy’s constrictive force. The ruthlessness of the Enemy is no empty threat, and it can and will rear its ugly head until it has dominated its opponent. In Dunkirk, the will of the Enemy is never in question; rather, the will of the British is.
Dunkirk is not about winning a battle. Dunkirk is not about losing a battle. Instead, Dunkirk is about escaping a battle, about finding a way to crawl out of the jaws of defeat so that, someday, you can strike back. The soldiers in this film are powerless to fight now, but to give up hope is to never fight again.
The soldiers on the beach are but one theatre in Nolan’s film. The second theatre is comprised of the small crew of a civilian boat, sailing to Dunkirk to evacuate soldiers under the British Navy’s emergency orders. Above, three fighter pilots race towards Dunkirk, dogfighting with Enemy planes along the way.
These three theatres—land, sea, and air—are not set at the same point. They are staggered, each moving forward towards the same point in time at different paces. However, they are sewn together by Director Nolan as if they were all simultaneous, creating the feeling that each part of the story is trapped in time, awaiting the moment when they may burst from their temporal barriers and join in a shared resolution.
Nolan is no stranger to nonlinear narratives. As the king of chronological mischief, Director Nolan has used a similar structure wherein each theater moves through time differently in his 2010 blockbuster Inception. Nolan’s practiced skill as a storyteller allows him to use this disjointedness to emphasize the gravity of each situation. While we see the civilian boat racing towards Dunkirk, we know that for the men on the beach, that boat hasn’t even left yet. While Tom Hardy’s pilot character engages an Enemy bomber, we don’t know how many times that bomber has already struck the beach. Each theatre is just as stranded as the soldiers at Dunkirk, and time can’t move fast enough.
Time does move fast enough while watching this film, however. At 106 minutes, it’s not a short film, but it sure did feel that way. The constant intensity, the mental effort required to track the different timelines, and the perpetual waiting combine to surprise the viewer with the fact that the film ends. The effect is counterintuitive; I would have expected this film to feel very long, but I got so lost in Nolan’s incredible storytelling that the film could’ve been two days long and I would not have even noticed.
As a war movie, Dunkirk offers a different perspective than most other films, for the evacuation of Dunkirk requires a different perspective than other military events. The battle was already lost, disastrously so, yet the miraculous evacuation of the British Army is seen as a victory of will. By refusing to roll over and die, the British showed a collective valor that is different from what is shown in any other war film I’ve seen, in a frustratingly indescribable way.
As the film’s tagline says, “at the point of crisis, at the point of annihilation, survival is victory.” I guess that, until we are faced with annihilation, we may never be able to comprehend the true meaning of valor.
Wagner’s Watch-worthiness: 9/10
*Photo credit Warner Bros. 2017