It’s a sunny blue-sky day in a charming French provincial town, when propaganda leaflets start raining down from the sky. Three soldiers walk into the foreground until the camera rests on the handsome young face of one of them, the story’s eventual protagonist (Fionn Whitehead). He spies a hose coiled next to a house and falls to his knees, upending the coil so the standing water drips into his mouth. I can taste the stagnant warmth of the water even as I feel its wet relief on his parched throat. The day may be sunny, but it’s far from bucolic.
Shots ring out and the men begin running toward a fence, joined by other soldiers equally determined to escape the Germans. One by one they’re picked off by the bullets. Only our unnamed and unvoiced hero makes it over the fence. My heart races with empathic panic and I think of how desperately he needs that helmet he took off to drink the water. How can I be so invested so quickly in the life of a character who is virtually unknown? I realize that the tension in my heart is being controlled by the tension of the music and the pace of the action, as it will be controlled throughout this movie.
Why does he survive when the other six soldiers fleeing the town are shot? Why does he survive when hundreds of soldiers awaiting rescue on the beach around him are killed?
I went to Dunkirk expecting to learn about the strategic significance of the battle that was waged there, when nearly 400,000 Allied troops were stranded near the beaches of France, waiting either for reinforcement or evacuation. Much has been written about the decision of German leaders not to press forward to annihilate the Allied troops, and British leaders’ hesitation to send a full barrage of support. It is considered the greatest defeat and the greatest triumph of the Second World War. I’ll be on the beaches of Dunkirk and Normandy next month, and I thought that watching this movie would enhance my appreciation of visiting the site.
But that’s not what the movie is about.
If you didn’t already know what happened at Dunkirk, the movie might make you think it was a minor skirmish involving a handful of soldiers, a couple of fighter planes, a few queues of Brits lined up to wait (unsuccessfully) for the next transport ship, and a single fishing boat crossing the channel to rescue them all, with a few random German bombers and snipers causing unexpected havoc along the way. We’re aware of the crowds of soldiers on the beach and the boats in the water, but they don’t have the vast impact of the same scene in films such as Atonement (2007); they seem almost like set dressing. And the French soldiers who kept the Germans at bay have no place in this film. In fact, the only French soldier in Dunkirk is portrayed as something of a coward.
Instead, this film focuses on our unnamed soldier and the inexplicable randomness of survival. Why does he survive when the other six soldiers fleeing the town are shot? Why does he survive when hundreds of soldiers awaiting rescue on the beach around him are killed by strafing or blown up by bombs? Why does he survive while those “fortunate enough” to board the rescue boats are lost? Director Christopher Nolan deliberately cast young unknown actors to emphasize the youth and inexperience of the soldiers at Dunkirk and the senseless serendipity of who survives and who does not.
The score is not melodic in the usual sense, but it pervades the film and invades the viewer.
Meanwhile, Captain Dawson (Mark Rylance) of a small fishing vessel hurries across the channel with a boatload of life vests, teamed only with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a family friend, George (Barry Koeghan). Dawson seems a sad sack of a man, but his small stature belies his strong character; he is determined to get those boys home. His character is loosely based on Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, a Titanic survivor who at Dunkirk rescued 55 soldiers in his personal yacht, the Sundowner, when he was 66. (Dawson’s boat is called the Moonstone.) Rounding out the rescue team are two pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), whose job is to take down the German planes that are targeting the rescue ships, and two officers, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), who are overseeing the evacuation in France.
The film is impressionistic in that each of these groups is representative of a larger whole, and the story is neither chronological nor complete. You’ll be confused by the juxtaposition of seemingly simultaneous scenes set in daylight and dark until you realize that one of the scenes is a flashback. Nolan explained that the alteration of time was necessary in order to bring the three storylines together, one taking a week (on the beach) one taking a day (on the ocean) and one taking an hour (in the air). In sum, Dunkirk provides an impression of the battle rather than a chronological history, and the sooner you realize that, the easier it is to follow the movie.
Dunkirk doesn’t have the flying limbs, disemboweled torsos, and spurting blood we’ve come to expect.
Contributing significantly to the film’s success is its quiet, relentlessly rising musical motif based thematically on Elgar’s “Nimrod” and scored by Hans Zimmer. Zimmer used a pocket watch that Nolan sent to him as an instrument in the orchestration to create the underlying pulse that subconsciously controls the viewer’s heartbeat, while Elgar’s theme and Zimmer’s use of cellos at the limits of their normal pitch creates a sense of anxiety. They also incorporated a technique called the “Shepard Tone,” which is a kind of musical version of M.C. Escher’s never-ending staircase that gives the impression of a never-ending rise in pitch. All of this leads to the continuous, unresolved tension. The resulting score is not melodic in the usual sense, but it pervades the film and invades the viewer. The Shepard Tone is also mirrored visually in Nolan’s juxtaposition of the three storylines (shore, sea, and air), in which one is always beginning, one is always climaxing, and a third is always ending.
Dunkirk is not a typical war movie. It doesn’t have the flying limbs, disemboweled torsos, and spurting blood we’ve come to expect after the gruesome realism Spielberg introduced in the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan 23 years ago. It’s a quiet film about individual courage, cowardice, suspicion, randomness, and the unrelenting desire for home.