Three simple title cards introduce Dunkirk’s three main stories. The Mole, which follows three soldiers’ (Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, and Aneurin Barnard) as they attempt to escape a horrible beach by the same name, takes place over a week. The next, The Sea, follows a fisherman (Mark Rylance, typically stellar), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney), and his son’s friend (Barry Keoghan) as they rescue stranded soldiers, which unfolds over one day. Finally, The Air focuses on two RAF pilots (Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy, both doing so much with just their eyes), centers around one hour of action. These three threads are essentially both three different films and represent the film’s three acts, all woven together like the warp and weft of an intricate tapestry. Christopher Nolan can be an indelicate director at times (including here—a particularly unsubtle shot of flagpoles surrounding british soldiers like jail bars sticks out as particularly on the nose), but the balletic balance between the three stories represents the most ambitious and technically impressive feat of Nolan’s career.
While this all sounds like the notoriously flashy director at his old tricks again, what makes Dunkirk so remarkable is that it is also one of his most focused, straightforward films. Nolan seems to have learned the right lessons from the ambitious but bloated misfire of Interstellar, which remains his most visually impressive but also his most flawed film. Dunkirk is largely trimmed of excess fat, clocking in at less than an hour and fifty minutes, and the leaner runtime forces Nolan to be less reliant on shocking revelations and self-indulgent spectacle. Both of those things are there, of course (the aerial scenes in particular give Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema ample opportunities to show off), but now, in a film that takes place almost entirely at sea and in the air, no less, a Nolan film has the proper groundwork for such flights of fancy to be in service to his film instead of overpowering it. Despite its ambition and grandiose scale, Dunkirk manages to be in many ways his most intimate film. Dialogue is spare and usually exposition driven—most of it delegated to Kenneth Branagh’s steadfast Commander on the dock in The Mole—and this choice alone automatically works to the film’s advantage. Nolan’s weakest skill as a filmmaker has always been his dialogue, invariably ham-fisted and restrained by his pressing need to always be saying something of great importance. The dialogue here, when it springs up, carries the tinge of that pomposity and literal-mindedness, but mostly the characters get by on looks alone. Nobody needs to tell anyone else that they are constantly on the verge of getting bombed out of existence. They’re all thinking the same thing—let’s get out of this hellhole—and that thought, Nolan knows, is much more exciting to watch than to say.
The lack of dialogue also allows the more technical elements of Dunkirk to shine through more brightly. As the least fantastical film in Nolan’s filmography, the film has nothing as ostentatious as Inception’s spinning hallway or Interstellar’s water planet, but it may be his most technically perfect. While The Air is the most fanciful segment, the camerawork is uniformly some of Nolan’s most arresting (it helps that this is the film that finally inspired to turn up the brightness of his camera—it turns out Nolan can use light, and to great effect!). Simple shots of soldiers struggling underwater or boats overturning linger just a bit longer than normal, and rarely is despair and destruction caught so beautifully than here. Of course Nolan would make his most grim film his most artistically framed. He has to balance out his morbidity somehow
And the sound! Accompanying his stunning camerawork his is most nervy, violent, and anxiety inducing soundscape to date. I’ve never been a fan of Nolan’s collaborations with Hans Zimmer, both of whom exacerbate the other’s more heavy-handed tendencies. But while Zimmer has become increasingly dependent on the dissonant chords of Inception to power Nolan’s imagery, Dunkirk finds the composer at his most creative and sharp. The moments of overpowering noise are used to much greater effect, and the rest of the score ticks along, sometimes literally to clock ticks, as the characters hurtle towards their fates. It’s a perfect companion to the devastatingly precise punctuations of gunfire and explosions, the most effective use of such since Hacksaw Ridge’s brutal war scenes last year. Few people go to war movies to relax, but few films truly capture the agonizing anticipation of battle. Long stretches of silence punctuated by terrible violence is not exactly healthy for one’s psyche, and the audience feels these punctuations with the poor soldiers as if they were there.
It must be said, however, that while I feared for these people’s lives and frequently found myself clenching my seat in anxiety as I watched them suffer, by the end I felt not deep empathy or relief at their deaths or survivals. Perhaps I was not supposed to—there are so many characters in Dunkirk that they end up feeling like stand-ins for Britain as a whole, not characters. But at the end, rewarding and exhilarating as the film may be, it left me exhausted instead of empathetic. Only Rylance, even tempered and sweater-clad in the face of probable annihilation, managed to force his way past being a symbol of that irrepressible British spirit to become simply a man, doing what is right and mourning the loss of friends and family. Dunkirk is always powerful, frequently exhilarating, and likely Nolan’s best film to date, but it needed more of that mournfulness to really do justice to the true horrors of war.