One of the first images we see in Dunkirk is of a group of English soldiers walking through a desolate French street, as pamphlets fall from the sky. The papers show a map of the French coast, and the encroaching German army surrounds the city of Dunkirk. These soldiers (who are no older than 25) have been stripped of hope and reek of desperation. The enemy in this film is never seen but constantly felt, as Nolan ensures we never even hear an utterance of the word “Nazi.” Many war films tend to examine the ideologies at play that allow for the conflict, but Nolan couldn’t be less interested in war theory. In fact, he’s really only concerned with the experience of war and survival.
Nolan’s decision to focus solely on survival is a radical one, especially when observed through the context of other successful war films. Touchstones in the war genre are often remembered because of their enduring characters. Classics like Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan are so intrinsically hinged to their memorable characters, since they offer us a chance to empathize with those facing the unimaginable horror of war. Nolan, instead, garners our empathy in Dunkirk by having us feel like we’re part of the action. We are never afforded backstories for any of these disparate characters. In fact, most viewers will have a difficult time even remembering any of the characters’ names. But that’s okay.
Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema shot Dunkirk in such a way that emphasizes the immediacy of the evacuation. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is really of simple construction—as thousands of soldiers stand on the pier at Dunkirk, a single Luftwaffe plane swoops down to drop a bomb. The sound design ramps up the tension and horror of the situation by emphasizing the unbearable screech of the German engine as it inches closer to align itself with the straight line of anxious English soldiers. The plane successfully demolishes large sections of the pier, and many soldiers are killed while the survivors are hurled into the cold coastal waters. This scene is so powerful, because without exposition, it suggests to us the fragility of human life. The characters’ names and backstories aren’t important, because war is the great equalizer. A girlfriend or a sick father at home will not save these soldiers from the German onslaught.
Nolan has always had a fascination with the concept of time, and Dunkirk allows him to explore this interest within the context of a real event. This film spends the entirety of its runtime crosscutting between three groups, all participating in the evacuation of Dunkirk. In classic Nolan fashion, each section is takes place over a different period of time. ‘The mole’ (the story of the soldiers on the beach), spans one week; ‘the sea’ (citizens on a private boat), spans one day; and ‘the air’ (fighter pilots), spans one hour. While this manipulation of time may seem arbitrary at first, Nolan uses the varying timelines to have us consider how perspective affects how we experience the passage of time. The repetitious monotony and constant fear felt by the ground soldiers make one week meld together in a blur, while the hour we spend with the fighter pilot (played wonderfully by Tom Hardy) feels significantly longer, as he’s always in immediate danger. This intense crosscutting, of course, culminates in a climax that brings all three storylines together in chaotic harmony.
Across all three storylines, Nolan makes an interesting decision not to make any moralizing judgments. Early on, two soldiers on the beach (Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard) find an injured man and rush him over to the departing medical ship. This heroic act may seem selfless, until it becomes clear that both soldiers use the opportunity to remain onboard the ship heading home. When they are told to get off the ship, they climb below the pier, waiting to sneak aboard the next ship, in front of the thousands of British soldiers waiting patiently in line. Nolan includes these scenes to make an important point: In war, when survival is everything, fear and cowardice shouldn’t be condemned but rather, expected.
An argument can be made that an “R” rating may have helped further this film’s agenda. While the film works rather well within the confines of a “PG-13,” some of the scenes fall a bit flat because they don’t include any blood or gore. When the Luftwaffe dive low and bomb the beach, we don’t see any signs of death in the aftermath. But this flaw can be forgiven. Nolan was clearly trying to make a film that feeds on our existential anxiety by making us fear an enemy that we can neither see nor understand.
Featured Image By Warner Bros. Pictures