Dunkirk movie review: the power of purpose

Dunkirk green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Primal and exhilarating, full of dread and tension. Drops us right into the chaos of war to tell an intimate story about fear and intensity of purpose.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Christopher Nolan’s films
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

What are movies? They are not just mere stories, not simply dismissable entertainments, not even the lowest, basest ones. They are our mutual dreams… and nightmares. They howl with our rage and scream with our pain and ache with our hopes. The best of them touch us in ways we sometimes cannot even pinpoint, probably because what has percolated up from the filmmaker’s heart and soul and mind is an expression of that same collective unconscious that is waiting in us to be spoken to. We don’t always know why these films resonate, only that they do.

Dunkirk is a movie that operates like that: it is primal. It feels urgent and contemporary even though it is set 77 years ago, outside the memory of the vast majority of people who might see it. And it is a movie about war, an experience that far fewer of us have had than would have had in the era in which it is set, one of global armed conflict that changed the world forever, one in which civilians were targeted on a mass scale and for which millions of men were conscripted. (Our wars today are comparatively puny, fought by volunteers who are almost forgotten in civic life, and have relatively little impact on our day-to-day lives. For Westerners, that is. Civilians in Syria and Nigeria and South Sudan and many other places would beg to differ.) So the urgency and the immediacy of Dunkirk comes from how writer-director Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises) drops us right into the middle of the chaos in a way that surely replicates what it must have felt like — perhaps still feels like — to be a grunt on the ground who has no inkling of the larger context in which he is being shuffled around.

“Colonel, I don’t think ‘Let’s play a big game of Duck Duck Goose with the men’ was your best idea ever.”
“Colonel, I don’t think ‘Let’s play a big game of Duck Duck Goose with the men’ was your best idea ever.”

Nolan never gives us much more of a big picture than very young British soldier Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) might ever have. He is waiting on the beach, with hundreds of thousands of other men: the Germans have pushed the English (and French) troops right up to the water’s edge on the northern French coast. (It is May 1940, though the movie doesn’t even tell us that, as if, obviously, Tommy and everyone else know the date and don’t need to be reminded.) As Kenneth Branagh’s (Mindhorn, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) naval commander notes, they can practically see the white cliffs of Dover across the English Channel. They can all also see that there is but one paltry small ship there to pick up this literal army of men awaiting rescue. They are stranded, and none of them have any idea what is going to happen to them. Their desperation is conveyed by little more than the haunted glare in their eyes, and in their actions — such as in the unspoken agreement between Tommy and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard: Legend, Trap for Cinderella), whom he has just met on the beach, to pretend to be medics in order to get on that one ship (which doesn’t work quite the way they hope). Their desperation, including when their duo becomes a trio with the arrival of Alex (pop star Harry Styles, making an impressive acting debut), is almost wordless. The beach section of Dunkirk is practically a silent movie. Because what is there to say? These men have been defeated in every way possible short of actually being killed.

Dunkirk feels urgent and contemporary even though it is set 77 years ago, outside the memory of the vast majority of people who might see it.

Nolan brilliantly amps up the free-floating confusion and anxiety of the soldiers on the beach for us, the viewers, in a way that is downright exhilarating, by playing with cinematic time in the other “chapters”: We have joined Tommy’s story a week before the evacuation of these troops, but we join pleasure-craft sailor Dawson (Mark Rylance: The BFG, Bridge of Spies) only a day before the evacuation begins, as his small yacht is about to be commandeered by the Royal Navy to sail to France and collect soldiers, and we join RAF fighter pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy: The Revenant, London Road) and Collins (Jack Lowden: Denial, A United Kingdom) a mere hour before, as they take to the air to protect the flotilla of small boats (such as Dawson’s) heading for Dunkirk. The days of waiting for Tommy, the hours on Dawson’s yacht, and the minutes in the air for the pilots gradually converge in time as events reach their climax… and this ingenious narrative structure spreads the dread and tension throughout the film in a way that a more straightforward narrative could not.

“Ooo, I hope Nolan lets me do the Bane voice once I put the mask on...”
“Ooo, I hope Nolan lets me do the Bane voice once I put the mask on…”

In fact, Dunkirk is so relentlessly suspenseful that it kept me wound tight throughout; there were moments when I realized I was clenching my jaw or tensing my whole body and had to force myself to relax. I actually hurt by the end of the movie. It’s easy to joke about spoilers in a story about a historical event the outcome of which is already known, but none of these fictional characters is guaranteed a happy fate. And the jumping around in time and in perspective means we learn early on that while we may think we’ve seen a tidy and safe resolution to some small sequence, another angle may show us something different and less pleasant. (I can’t help but imagine those moments as cheeky tweaks on the larger “so you think you know how it ends” issue.) Dunkirk is wound as tightly as I was: it may range across a wide beach, the breadth of the English Channel, and the wild blue yonder — all of which is breathtakingly immersive in IMAX — but the film feels intimate, sometimes almost claustrophobic. Nolan never cuts away to politicians and generals making plans in London, for instance. As the chapters on the sea and in the air intersect with Tommy’s on the beach, there’s almost nothing that happens that someone else we meet onscreen couldn’t tell him about. We are stuck in this little bubble of nervous fear.

Nolan plays with cinematic time to amp up the confusion and anxiety of the soldiers on the beach.

Eschewing CGI and shooting on the actual locations — including the real Dunkirk beach — with ships and planes of the era (and thousands of real-live extras) certainly contributes to the sense of organic authenticity of the movie. But it’s that intimacy that is so important, so vital. This isn’t, after all, a movie about war, about large-scale battle, never mind that it puts us in the middle of a war with a power that few other movies have achieved. Dunkirk is about something of which warmaking is only one aspect: it’s about people playing their own small but essential parts in an enormous communal effort that they can see only a sliver of. This is what gives the film its resonance for us today, and what makes it so emotional, even though we barely learn much about any of these characters. The people here are boiled down to one thing, their one intense purpose of the moment, whether that’s their own survival or their absolute imperative to do something to pitch in, as with teenager George (Barry Keoghan: ’71), who insists on sailing with Dawson to Dunkirk because he wants to help in whatever way he can.

♪♪ Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale / A tale of a fateful trip... ♪♪
♪♪ Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale / A tale of a fateful trip… ♪♪

I was sobbing so hard by the end of the movie that it was all I could do to keep from bawling out loud (in a cinema that had been stunned into silence). I was wrung out in body and soul. And I think that was because Dunkirk is speaking to a desire that many of us have, to be a part of something big and important, to step up and contribute our effort to something meaningful. We don’t see a lot of opportunity to do that today, and we long for it. (That doesn’t have to mean war! It could mean battling global warming, or rebuilding crumbling infrastructure.) We are frustrated that no one is even asking us to do great things, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. This is ironic, because some of my tears were tears of rage. As the UK — where I live — ineptly shuffles its way toward leaving the European Union, Dunkirk reminds us how high a price was paid for the Europe we have today, a collective effort that should not be thrown away lightly. As an American, I feel as pain the US retreating into itself. And when we see the power of working together that Dunkirk illustrates, that absence suddenly stings.

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