Dunkirk finds human dignity in military failure. A swift but unrelenting dramatization of the desperate, 1940 evacuation of beaten British forces from the windswept shores of France, the film sustains the intensity of Saving Private Ryan’s opening D-Day sequence for its full, hour-and-40-minute running time. And it tops that movie’s emotional wallop without the help of a present-day, honorary epilogue. In fact, Dunkirk barely leaves the beach at all.
In truth, it does—but only in space, not in time. Early titles indicate that Dunkirk will be divided into three increasingly interconnected segments: The Mole (the name for the stone bulwark jutting into the water); The Sea; and The Air. At the first location, where we experience a week of compressed time, a bedraggled young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) tries to sneak his way off the beach via any departing vessel he can find. (On multiple occasions, the ship he boards is terrifyingly sunk.) At sea, over the course of one day, a civilian boat manned by its owner (Mark Rylance), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their young neighbor (Barry Keoghan) races across the English Channel, hoping to evacuate as many soldiers as possible (including a shellshocked Cillian Murphy, whom they encounter en route and who demands they turn back). In the air, as the seconds tick by in a crucial hour, a fighter pilot named Farrier (Tom Hardy) provides cover for the rescue boats, even as he faces dwindling fuel.
As a film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk functions as something of a corrective to the exposition-heavy Interstellar, his previous feature. Physics lectures and lengthy dialogue scenes weighed that space epic down, but little needs to be explained here. Indeed, Dunkirk offers barely more than those opening titles and propaganda pamphlets falling on retreating soldiers. The latter depict a map of the shrinking British position and the words “We surround you.” Dialogue is sparse, as sound and image are relied on to carry the day. And carry it they do.
Sound and image are relied on to carry the day. And carry it they do.
Hans Zimmer composed the score, which for the most part is inseparable from the sound design. The clicking of a stopwatch frequently segues into percussion; the thrum of a propellor gets picked up by bellowing strings. As we slip among those three locations (and time frames), this soundscape creates a seamless experience. As Farrier fires from his cockpit and the soldier splashes in the water and the boat captain chugs across the channel, all three places become one, in sound if not in image.
But oh, those images. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who shot the film in 70mm, emphasize expanse whenever they aren’t capturing the claustrophobia of a sinking vessel. The beach at Dunkirk—gray and frothy, constantly pummeled by wild waves—seems to go on forever, while the bands of sea and sky against which Farrier flies might as well represent galaxies. The shores of England are only 20 some miles away, but Dunkirk makes the distance feel interstellar.
And yet, the movie ultimately registers as intensely intimate. All three narrative strands eventually merge at a single point in time, which—thanks to that careful commingling of sound and image—feels natural rather than contrived. Dunkirk comes to a climax in a time and place we wouldn’t have thought possible, given the odds the British are facing, yet somehow it feels inevitable.
Time, space, and meaning have long been malleable things in Nolan films. You wouldn’t think that would also be the case in a relatively straightforward war picture, but in reality Dunkirk is as slippery an experience as Nolan triumphs like The Prestige, Inception, and Memento. Sound and image combine to create a continually shifting formal puzzle, while the human pieces at play—Whitehead’s sneaky soldier, Murphy’s mutinous survivor, Hardy’s steel-clad angel—provoke complicated ideas about cowardice, bravery, and the sheer survival instinct that often separates the two. I don’t think the sublime sight of Farrier’s plane quietly gliding over the beach, spent of its fuel after making a final protective run, would have brought tears to my eyes if the movie hadn’t also spent time honoring the debilitating fear suffered by so many of the men below.
In its vast cinematic glory and intimate emotional appeal, Dunkirk encourages us to hail heroes whenever we have the slightest excuse, and give considerable pause before calling anyone a coward. In this it’s a war film of considerable, uncommon valor.