Nowadays you can just get a ferry or the Eurostar and be there in a few relatively painless minutes, but had you hoped to cross the Strait of Dover from France to England in May 1940, you’d be in for some real hell. You might very well drown, or be crushed by the hull of a listing ship, or scorched alive by burning oil, or bombed, or shot. Or maybe all of these things at once, or in sequence. Worse still, you’d most likely have to do a lot of standing around and waiting for it beforehand. Back then, whatever side of history you were on, be it Axis or Allied, you’d still want to be on the English side of the Strait of Dover. Truly nobody wanted to cross the other way, from England to France. Yet many brave souls did so anyway, to rescue nearly 340,000 soldiers who’d been trapped there by the Nazis.
Christopher Nolan’s new movie has a decidedly Christopher Nolanish way of describing what that was like. Dunkirk, which sounds pretty definitive as titles go, is said by its writer-director to intend “a representative experience of Dunkirk without claiming to speak for any real individuals.” Does it strive to be a monument? The supportive studio PR apparatus seems intent on a cultural pivot point, after which that name comes to mean not just the place itself, nor the so-called spirit thereof, but Nolan’s movie too, especially. Time will tell.
How it works dramatically is as a braid of three overlapping timeframes: the weeklong evacuation of the soldiers, with Fionn Whitehead as one evacuee in particular; a daylong rescue excursion, with Mark Rylance as but one civilian boater in a ragtag flotilla of small vessels, just here to help and occasionally put the Dunkirk spirit into words; and an hourlong rally of air support, with Tom Hardy as an unflappable RAF pilot and diligent dogfighter. Also on hand are regular Nolan secret weapon Cillian Murphy, as a PTSD-afflicted survivor scooped up into Rylance’s boat with fateful consequences; Kenneth Branagh, as a brooding Naval officer who waits and frets and watches the horizon; and erstwhile One Direction frontman Harry Styles in his acting debut—a nice touch, the dreamboat newly at sea. As Nolan tightens the braid, these chronologies converge, not in any single a-ha moment per se, but in some kind of sturdy, complicated knot. With due credit to dauntless DP Hoyte Van Hoytema and composer Hans Zimmer, the result is more disorienting than clarifying, but bracing nonetheless. In that sense it may be presumed to approximate an actual experience of war.
Any historical drama is necessarily a summary, and will approach a threshold at which distillation becomes dilution. Nolan doesn’t seem too worried about this, and Dunkirk’s eruptive brevity is almost refreshing. The war-movie milieu serves him well by easing the burden of exposition; with basic story parameters at once familiar and self-evident, Nolan here reduces the laborious explanatory dialogue that’s long been a toxic byproduct of his ambition, concentrating freely on the structural mechanism, those ticking rhythmic units. His drive—that career-spanning urge toward unconventional chronology—is downright mathematical, a matter of getting the proportions right. In Dunkirk’s contrapuntal pacing, as much as in its elaborate production, we behold an impressive feat of management.
Review duty obliges hat tips to earlier cinematic instances of this history in particular, such as William Wyler’s Oscar-winner Mrs. Miniver, from 1942; the other Dunkirk, by Leslie Norman in 1958; and most recently Joe Wright’s Atonement of 2007, in which the event served as a long-take setpiece. Not surprisingly, those heartstring-tuggers tend to pale next to the mannered intensity of Nolan’s IMAX imago. That’s because in the latest battle for big-screen supremacy, a ruddy campaign to make the world safe from format-agnosticism, Dunkirk isn’t just a brave rescue from defeat; it’s a blitz.
So what else is there, precedent-wise? We’d have to cite Griffith, that key early enthusiast of cross-cutting for suspense, and a dubious proponent of war-forged human history as narrative amusement. Also Kurosawa, for opening up the multiple ways of seeing how something major might have really gone down. Hitchcock, pioneer of the singular dismay of waiting around in broad daylight to be attacked from the sky and having no place to hide—not to mention model of the cool self-satisfaction that’s required to engineer such scenes as popular entertainments. Certainly Spielberg, for rewriting war-movie vernacular by way of a harrowing French beach scene. Eastwood, perhaps, for the will to ponder World War II episodes from alternating perspectives. Probably Malick too, for the hope of simultaneity between the grand and the granular.
The list goes on—and yet, for better and worse, Nolan makes it his own. There is a certain directorial solemnity at work here that would be hard to mistake for anybody else’s. It’s both illuminating and limiting. Just as verbal expression is minimized in Dunkirk, so is the sight of blood, presumably also for reasons of tact. Retrospect may reveal this as a discrediting elision, but Nolan doesn’t seem too worried about that either.
Here’s something he might do well to consider. If after seeing Nolan’s film you do take that ferry or the Eurostar, you might feel a sublime pang of cognitive dissonance to think that in this place at that time those things were happening. Which suggests that maybe after all the best way to do a temporally elastic movie about it is to allow that one of the timeframes in question should be peacetime. And why stop there? Why not Geologic time? Just think: He could have started it before there even was a Strait of Dover, backing up by as many years as there were evacuees, to right about when a prehistoric lake overflowed its natural chalk-wall dam and gouged out what later would become such a nail-bitingly thin barrier between fascism and democracy, and later still—well, we’ll have to wait and see, won’t we? Time will tell.