Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ strips away all superfluous elements, leaving tension and desperation as viewers watch a select group of soldiers preparing for the heat of battle.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES
When Winston Churchill addressed the government and, by extension, the citizens of England after the evacuation of Dunkirk, France in the early days of World War II, he spoke of how this mounting war provided unheralded opportunities for youth. British and allied forces had to hurriedly retreat across the English Channel in the face of the militarily superior Nazis. The Royal Navy organized a desperate effort to bring them back to safety.
Churchill knew Britain still faced great risks and losses ahead. To his mind, this was not a mythic clash from the days of old involving the Knights of the Round Table or the Crusaders. Instead, this was a fight undertaken by young men who deserved respect. As he told the House of Commons in 1940, his first two sentences a paraphrase from the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
“ ‘Every morn brought forth a noble chance. And every chance brought forth a noble knight.’ They deserve our gratitude, as do all the brave men who, in so many ways and on so many occasions, are ready, and continue ready to give life and all for their native land.”
And now is a chance, noble and fine, for us to rediscover the inspirational power of the story of Dunkirk. It’s a time to honor those who were brave in retreat so they might fight again. That is what the British-born Christopher Nolan, who has become one of America’s best-known directors as a result of Inception, The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Memento and more, does with his typical immersive genius in Dunkirk. He dispenses with the narrative architecture we’ve come to expect from war films. He foregoes backstories and training sequences employed to familiarize us with a select group of soldiers preparing for the heat of battle. We know nothing of their love lives, their families or their hopes and dreams for life after the war. There is only “the now.”
But, of course, this is still a Nolan film, so he tinkers with the structure to grant us access to three distinct perspectives all rendered within a different time frame. The action unfolds over the course of a week (for the troops on the ground), a day (for one of the cruising yachts speeding off to assist in the evacuation) and a single hour (for a trio of aerial fighters dispatched to provide cover). It is only in the final moments of the film that we begin to appreciate the precise period of time when these fragments overlap.
Dunkirk strips away all superfluous elements, leaving us with tension and desperation. We are stranded on the beach among the hundreds of thousands of soldiers bravely waiting to escape, and then running and ducking for cover as the Germans spray them with fire from land and air. Nolan places us in the company of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young lad constantly attempting to stay one step ahead of the next perilous assault. Then we join Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Collins (Jack Lowden) and young George (Barry Keoghan) as they race off in their yacht to do their part. Finally, we settle into the cockpit with Farrier (Tom Hardy), an ace pilot with a busted fuel gauge trying hard to defend his countrymen.
Are there arcs for any of these characters? Nolan proves it doesn’t matter in the slightest. What matters is that we see people doing what is necessary in the darkest of moments.
But if audiences find themselves longing for a hero, then I would argue that Farrier earns the appellation best, because Hardy expands upon his singular performance in Locke, where he dominated the screen from behind the wheel of a car, speaking rapid-fire into his cellphone. Here, constrained even further by the tiny cockpit of his plane, with dwindling fuel and the monumental task of being the last pilot standing between his troops and a torrential rain of German bombs, Hardy never raises his voice or strains to show any emotion; he simply does his duty.
Nolan, it could be argued, sets the standard from the top with his approach. Dunkirk is a stunning cinematic achievement, skillfully and exactingly deploying music and sound to heighten drama, capitalizing on every inch of the large screen to document the looming horror and growing desperation. The noblest feat of all from Nolan is the appreciation he leaves us with — that even this horrific moment will pass and we will be better for having survived it. (Opens wide Friday.) (PG-13) Grade: A