Dunkirk is Bold, if Not Entirely Successful

DUNKIRK  (2017)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Warner Brothers, 106 minutes, PG-13

There are a few things about Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk that should be said from the outset. First, it’s not a historically accurate account of the 1940 evacuation to Britain of more than 300,000 British and French soldiers after the Fall of France. Second, it doesn’t try to be: Nolan creates composite characters, invents others, the scale is wrong, he elides events, jumps in time, and adds small anachronisms for visual impact. He even filmed in sunlight when the actual conditions were overcast and rainy. Third, Dunkirk is not a guts-and-glory tale filled with latter-day John Wayne- or Sylvester Stallone-type heroes. Fourth, although there is plenty of harrowing action, there is almost no gore. Fifth, it’s not a traditional buddies-in-wartime film, either. Sixth, though there is dialogue, much of the film is wordless.

So what is Nolan’s Dunkirk? How about a Greek tragedy in khaki and life preservers? His is a bold attempt to use mythology to counter a legend. I’m not being metaphorical. Nolan’s Dunkirk is more akin to Aeschylus,
Sophocles, or Euripides than Malick, Bigelow, or Eastwood. Greek tragedies open with prologues; Dunkirk has title slides. We get brief looks at a few characters, but like a Greek tragedy we get three types of story arcs; in this case ones titled “land,” “sea,” and “air.” We even have a Greek commentary chorus: Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), and those interacting with them. Still another character, a boy named George (Barry Keoghan) serves as a silent choral figure whose changing roles and fates presage those of others. Even the film’s scale evokes the stripped down Greek stage. We see orderly queues of men waiting to be evacuated—those lines separated from each other with blank beach between them—but we are clearly looking at dozens of individuals, not the 400,000 who were actually at Dunkirk. Or we see ships bobbing in the vast English Channel, or insect-scaled airplanes swallowed by expansive blue skies. That is, it's more of an Olympian point of view than one bound by human perspective.  

In stark contrast to Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, Nolan’s Dunkirk is a decidedly non-triumphant look at war. One protagonist is named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), so chosen because it’s British slang for an ordinary soldier (akin to say, G.I.). Tommy is no hero; we see him running from gunfire, trying to fake his way onto an evacuation ship by posing as a corpsman, and holing up in a beached ship awaiting the tide. He’s not looking to collect medals; he just wants to go home. His is the bookend story to that of a shell-shocked officer from a torpedoed ship  (Cillian Murphy), plucked from the water by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), who are part of the civilian armada bound for Dunkirk. In this film, heroism comes in the form of resignation, not sacrificial disregard for one’s own safety. A Spitfire pilot named Farrier (Tom Hardy) is another such accidental and reluctant protector.
I’m not always a fan of Hans Zimmer movie scores, but he hits the right notes in Dunkirk. He skirts atonality on occasion, but mostly his score is big and ominous—even surreal. It adds immeasurably to the pathos of what we see unfold and serves in ways dialogue might in a more conventional film. It’s unique also in that Zimmer goes big to contrast with understated acting. That is to say, Zimmer doesn’t need to window dress a big speech or pivotal moment because there aren’t any. Dunkirk is not a victory; it’s a salvage operation. Greek tragedies generally have some sort of concluding exodus, be it actual or metaphorical. No laurel wreaths here, unless you stretch to include the bottles of beer and applauding locals at British train stations.

Let’s give kudos to Nolan for a bold attempt to challenge the Dunkirk legend. As a film, though, Dunkirk has a stronger vibe as an austere play. I admire spare production, but Nolan’s film is like those spaced-out queues, vast ocean, and expansive sky; we notice the blankness. The script relies on visuals and viscerality. I get that Nolan wants us to see the men of Dunkirk as (mostly) nameless cogs in a war machine not of their choosing, but it also means that characters are often emotionally disconnected from audiences looking for reasons to care. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called Dunkirk the best war movie ever made. Sorry, but he’s wrong. It might, in fact, be the best war movie flop of all time! Put another way, a person unfamiliar with Greek tragedy might spend most of this film wondering what the hell is going on, as there is very little exegesis of any sort after the prologue. For a great war movie that’s both a well-tuned narrative and a morality play, Apocalypse Now remains at the top of the heap. But even if Dunkirk is ultimately more intriguing conceptually than cinematically, hats off to Nolan for an interesting attempt.

Rob Weir

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