Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan, is not a war film, at least not in the way that Hollywood has trained us to expect. There are no grand heroics of male camaraderie, no narrative backstory of what the soldiers are fighting for, no epic battle sequences against the enemy. In fact, the enemy stays largely out of it.
In the opening moments we observe a handful of British soldiers walking down an empty French street in the evacuated city of Dunkirk as they search for cigarettes or water or a private corner to relieve themselves. As they walk, flyers rain down from the sky letting them know they are surrounded on all sides by the enemy. Gunshots ring out from an unseen place, and the soldiers take to running. One by one, we watch as they get picked off, and our main character (Fionn Whitehead)—if we can call him that—emerges as the sole survivor, jumping a fence and rounding a corner to the beach where thousands of his fellow soldiers are lined up waiting to be evacuated.
That first scene encapsulates Nolan’s agenda for how the next hour and a half will play out. The enemy is there—and the tension of their inevitable encroachment pushes in at every angle.
The evacuation at Dunkirk is, after all, a story of defeat. In the early stages of WWII, during the German Invasion of France in 1940, the Allied troops were cut off and surrounded by Germans on all fronts. In an operation Churchill later called “a colossal military disaster,” the remaining 400,000 Allied troops were corralled onto Dunkirk beach to be evacuated across the English Channel.
Nolan keeps us largely separate from these historical details. This is a story of survival, and historical context doesn’t always belong. In some ways, Dunkirk seems a return to the early, experimental realm of Nolan’s Memento, with its interest in the nonlinearity of memory within a narrative of trauma.
The film is broken into three separate but overlapping narratives—land, sea, and air—that take place over a week, a day, and an hour, respectively. Through the masterful cuts back and forth between these different time structures, narrative perspective gets murky. One moment we witness a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy), who has been rescued from his shipwrecked destroyer, tell his rescuers they will die if they go back to help others. The next moment it is an earlier night and the same soldier is rowing his own boat through waves of shipwrecked soldiers telling them he’ll come back to help. Characters jump between beach, boat, and water too many times to keep track and the discontinuity of the repetitively overlapping narratives add to the overarching feeling of helplessness. And then we have the fighter pilot overhead (the ever-faceless Tom Hardy), in his one hour narrative stretched across the film, always giving us aerial flashes of the future, inversely giving the illusion of him stuck forever overhead.
Although Nolan has overlapped different narrative times before—the space travel of last year’s Interstellar and the dreamscapes of Inception—here it is deployed in a mode that mimics the modernist novels of the film’s period, foregoing narrative simplicity in an attempt to capture the sense of confusion and meaninglessness intrinsic in war. It feels as if the Nolan storytelling method has finally found the story it was mean to tell.
As soldiers wait on the beach, bombs fall. Some men get up, some don’t. Little regard is given to either action. Instead, the camera pans on, finding its subject in the sheer volume of men. Although there are several main players in the action, Nolan is not interested in character development in the traditional sense. Hans Zimmer’s string-filled score keeps the tension of danger high, dialogue is sparse, and backstory is practically non-existent. The only character we learn anything about, beyond the events occurring at Dunkirk, is a civilian boy on one of the rescue boats.
Nolan seems to suggest that individual character is stripped from us in the trauma of war. Soldiers are not allowed to develop character: it is hard enough just to survive. And yet, with Dunkirk, Nolan has given us a film about the soldier experience that seems both anonymous and, at the same time, deeply personal.