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July 21 will see the simultaneous release of writer/director Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer and Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig from a script she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach. In anticipation of this momentous event, I am become BARBENHEIMER, the retrospective of worlds. We continue today with Christopher Nolan's 2017 war film, Dunkirk.
There's a strong argument to be made that Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan's best film to date. With ruthless efficiency, Nolan utilizes the fundamental, unadulterated principles of suspense films to create his purest work of cinema, a story told with sight and sound but rarely dialogue.
First, we must acknowledge that this was a unique approach to the genre of war films. When Dunkirk was announced, most people were probably envisioning something more adherent to the classic combat movie template, of which there are seemingly-infinite examples: All Quiet on the Western Front (any version), Sergeant York, Hell is for Heroes, Platoon, Hamburger Hill... heck, Starship Troopers fits the mold, and it's not even about a real war. I'm not knocking these movies. I'm just noting that we've seen ten-thousand versions of the story where some guys are in a war and in-between perilous encounters with the enemy they sit around and reminisce about their lives back home and one guy is like "I can't wait to get back home and have a frank at Yankee Stadium, and by the way, wanna see a picture of my girl?" two seconds before his head gets blown off and another guy is like, "Gee golly gosh, I dunno if I can kill another man!" two seconds before killing another man, and the Sarge is a real hard-ass but in a funny, avuncular way, and the Cap is humorless and square but oh-so-wise and blah blah blah blah blah. It's become very Mad Libs, and whatever juice it may have had left after the one-two punch of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line in 1998 was more or less completely soaked up by satire of 2008's Tropic Thunder.
But no. Dunkirk is not another one of these movies. Rather, it's a Hitchcockian thriller that wrings tension, again and again and again, from very simple situations. How will the soldiers escape drowning in the hull of a ship that has just been torpedoed? Can they get out of the water before an oil spill sets them on fire? Can they carry an injured soldier in a stretcher to a boat that's about to set sail in run across a single plank of wood without breaking it and plummeting to their own demise? The film almost feels like a response to those who are critical of Nolan's sound design; there's very little dialogue in Dunkirk, and 99% of the dialogue that exists is not actually important. You can watch this movie with the sound off and be able to follow what's happening (Eisenstein would've loved this movie). In fact, watching this movie with the closed captioning on on ought to be deemed a federal crime.
Dunkirk being a Christopher Nolan movie, the narrative unfolds across three intercut timelines. First, there is 'The Mole' (the jetty on which the soldiers are desperately waiting to be evacuated), which takes place over the course of a week. Then there's 'The Sea,' in which we follow civilians making their way across the English Channel to assist with that evacuation, and which is set over the course of a day. And finally, there's 'The Air,' which chronicles British pilots for but a single hour in the conflict.
Because Nolan's whole plan of attack is to move the characters from one tension-filled set piece to the next with as little expository bullshit as possible, we never learn much about these characters. For example, the three soliders with whom we spent the most time in 'The Mole' are named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles), which we know only because of the credits - no one ever says anyone else's name. Whatever we come to understand about them as people, we understand because of their behavior, not because they get a dramatic monologue outlining their backstory. The pilots in 'The Sea,' Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), are given just as little exposition, and they're ostensibly hidden behind masks for the entire movie. We learn much more about the pre-war lives of the characters in 'The Sea,' Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter's friend, George (Barry Keoghan)... but that's "much more" to compared to "nothing." And, frankly, most directors would have more explicitly connected some of the dots in 'The Sea' to try and squeeze as much emotion out of that storyline as possible, but Nolan shows restraint (I wonder how many people even realize that Mr. Dawson is so knowledgeable about military planes because his older son was killed in one - a character detail Nolan took from his own dad, whose father was, in fact, a pilot killed in WWII).
If Dunkirk was just a crackerjack thriller that more or less used a real historical event as its MacGuffin, it would still be top-notch. But it's also a profound commentary on what can be achieved when people come together.
The use of multiple timelines serves a very utilitarian purpose, allowing Nolan to cut to the quick of all three scenarios without it ever feeling like he's left anything out. Told linearly, there's not much to be done with the guys in 'The Mole,' 'cause they're spending large swaths of time sitting on the beach trying to figure out how to get the hell out of France. But because Nolan has these other plot lines to which he can cut, he can skip the boring stuff.
But Nolan is nothing if not a master of marrying form, function, and meaning. So this non-linear methodology also allows Nolan to marry the anxiety of all three narratives, which is thematically important - as I said before, Dunkirk is a story about solidarity. The movie is set against a ticking clock - like, uliterally, a ticking clock sound plays for about 98% of the running time (and Hans Zimmer's brilliant score utilizes percussions that sound like a racing heart, and frequently builds to what sounds like the sirens from an air raid - which doesn't exactly put you at ease). Except, again, that ticking clock would mean something different to the characters in each story. But ostensibly playing it as though everything is happening at once unites every character via intense apprehension and emphasizes their symbiosis. Whether the viewer consciously realizes it or not, these characters are all bonded together in the audience's mind.
Christopher Nolan is Christopher Nolan not because of his mastery of narrative craft, but because of his mastery of showmanship, too. So none of this is even taking into account the extremely impressive nature of this production, which was achieved practically as much as any film in the 21st century. The aerial dog fights alone are breathtaking.
Sam Mendes tried to ape Dunkirk two years later with his World War I movie, 1917 (because, hey, he made money ripping off Nolan for Skyfall!). The results were laughably inferior. "Simple" and "easy" are not the same thing, even if Nolan makes it look like they are.