The victory of Dunkirk
Christopher Nolan's WWII juggernaut juxtaposes simplicity with complexity, beauty with terror, defeat with victory. The end result is a deeply British movie that resonates on a global scale.
As the world continues to transition away from the movie-theater experience and grows increasingly comfortable with the idea of watching a movie for the first time at home on a couch with the freedom to start and stop and restart again with the single click of a button, all without the annoying person in front of you pulling out their phone mid-movie, Christopher Nolan might be the hero we need.
He’s one of the only remaining directors working today whose movies feel like global events that demand our participation. When The Dark Knight came out, I saw the movie twice on the same day — once with my friends during the day and another time with my family later that same night. When Inception was released, my friends and I went to the midnight showing. Later that day, I was back at the theater with my family for round two.
I’m well aware that using my own personal experiences to support a widespread claim about moviegoing can be misleading considering I’m the rare kind of person who will pay to see a single movie 12 times in theaters or waste 138 minutes of my life watching an utter disaster of a movie like Midway, but I think most of the movie-watching world agrees with me. The Dark Knight made $1,004,934,033 at the box office. Inception earned $829,895,144. The Dark Knight Rises racked up $1,081,041,287. Interstellar drew $677,471,339. Dunkirk collected $526,940,665. While The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises received boosts merely for being Batman movies, three of those five films are original stories. Nolan is one of the few directors who can be handed a blank check to make an original story that isn’t dependent on existing IP — from Marvel to Star Wars to DC now that his Batman days are well behind him — and always draw large audiences around the globe.
Which brings us to Tenet. Shelter-in-place has only accelerated the demise of the theatrical experience. When will people feel safe to head back to the theater to sit and breathe and cough and sniffle alongside strangers for two-plus hours? Even when we get to a point where shelter-in-place is relaxed, will people head back to the theater when they just spent months streaming movies at home, including recently released movies like Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), The Invisible Man, and The Way Back, all of which were made available for streaming far earlier than they would’ve been in a normal world that hasn’t been devastated by a pandemic?
When all of this is over and long past us, even if studios transition away from theaters and toward streaming, Nolan will be one of the few directors with enough clout to demand his films get theatrical releases. In the meantime, Tenet is a question mark. We’ll learn a lot about the viability of the movie theater in a post-coronavirus world once Tenet rolls around. Nolan’s latest film, scheduled for release on July 17, is going to be the film that reopens theaters assuming lawmakers decide that we can safely visit theaters by that point. It’s going to be the litmus test. If a Nolan movie can’t draw an audience, the movie industry will know it is in dire circumstances.
“Chris really would like to be coming out with the film that opens theaters,” IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond said recently. “I don’t know anyone in America who is pushing harder to get the theaters re-opened and to get his movie released than Chris Nolan.”
My friend, Winston, asked me the other day if I’d go to theaters in July to watch Tenet. I told him that I would, but I would aim for a daytime showing to minimize my chances of sitting among a sold-out audience. Obviously, above all else, I’ll listen to the experts and only go to the theater if they say it’s safe to do so, but also obviously, if a new Christopher Nolan movie is in theaters, I’m only not gonna go if I have a legitimate reason to fear catching a virus that’s killed at least 282,719 people as of Mother’s Day. Some of the most memorable theatergoing experiences of my life are Christopher Nolan movies — like Dunkirk (2017).
Unlike The Dark Knight and Inception, which I long considered to be my two favorite Nolan films, I didn’t see Dunkirk twice on the same day. The first time I saw it, I liked it — I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sound of that opening gunshot echoing throughout a serene empty street in a French beach town — but was so jarred from the experience that I took significant time off before I could stomach it again in theaters. I wound up seeing it three times. I’ve since watched it twice at home. With each and every rewatch, I’ve come to appreciate the movie more. I’ve come to realize it’s Nolan’s best — and one of the 10 best movies of the prior decade.
Sean Wagner-McGough @seanjwagnerMy 10 favorite movies of the decade: 1. Rogue One 2. Arrival 3. Whiplash 4. Ex Machina 5. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood 6. The Wolf of Wall Street 7. Zero Dark Thirty 8. The Social Network 9. Moneyball 10. Snowpiercer Just missed: Dunkirk, 50/50, Her, Sicario, The Martian.
With no disrespect to The Dark Knight or Inception, Dunkirk is Nolan’s masterpiece. It’s a juggernaut of a movie that demonstrates all of Nolan’s strengths and even manages to weaponize his weaknesses. It’s blockbuster moviemaking at its absolute peak. It gets better with each and every rewatch. It wasn’t until my fifth rewatch that I properly appreciated it for the victory it both portrays onscreen and represents for Nolan the filmmaker.
“If you’re going for an apex mountain heat check, I think it would either be The Dark Knight or Inception. But he still hadn’t revealed, as bad of an ass he was, he still hadn’t shown how bad of an ass he could be,” Quentin Tarantino said on The Rewatchables podcast. “I think that when he did Dunkirk, he put himself up with the greatest in the world, and I think he was already there. Even if you like this one and you don’t care for that one — and there’s a few that I feel that way about — but it brought him to the mountain, as far as I’m concerned.”
It’s not often you can describe the plot of a Christopher Nolan movie in the space of a single sentence. Nolan is the best blockbuster director alive because he knows how to spin complex webs of plot and weave the strands together into a stunning spectacle that can only be properly appreciated on the big screen, but for as much as plot is his strongest armor, it’s also sometimes a crutch, especially when he prioritizes plot over well-written characters that feel fully human. Sometimes, it can feel like he thinks of his characters more like plot pieces than human beings; Ellen Page’s character in Inception exists to ask the questions that the audience might have as they watch an entertaining as hell, but confusing as fuck movie — so confusing that Leonardo DiCaprio even admits he doesn’t entirely understand the film he starred in.
Dunkirk is different. Based on the miraculous evacuation of Allied forces from the beaches of Dunkirk in the north of France as the German war machine closed in on them in late May and early June 1940 — codenamed Operation Dynamo — Dunkirk can be described with a single sentence: Escape the beach before the Germans destroy the Allied forces. Nolan, himself, almost does it at the beginning of the film, but tacks on a few more sentences for dramatic effect.
The enemy have driven the British and French armies to the sea.
Trapped at Dunkirk, they await their fate.
Hoping for deliverance.
For a miracle.
And so the movie begins. Compared to the Nolan movies that came before — Inception is about planting ideas in someone’s head by sneaking into their dreams, and don’t even ask me to explain here how Interstellar ended with that love-bookshelf-watch thing — Dunkirk is remarkably simple.
But in typical Nolan fashion, he finds a way to Nolanify it. Only this time, his technique is justified.
He tells the story through three different lenses: the soldiers stuck on the beach waiting for rescue (The Mole), the ordinary citizens who used their personal boats to sail from England to France and back to England to bring their boys home (The Sea), and the Royal Air Force fighting above the English Channel as they desperately try to make it to Dunkirk to provide the stranded soldiers with air support before they run out of fuel (The Air).
What’s confusing about the movie is that the land segment takes place over the course of a week, the sea segment takes place over the course of a day, and the air segment takes place over the course of an hour. The land, sea, and air segments are spliced together in such a way that the movie jumps back and forth through time; you’ll see a sunken ship in the middle of the English Channel during the sea segment, but when the story cuts back to the land segment, that ship is still stationed near the beach, ready to depart France for England with a belly full of soldiers. Instead of letting the movie unfold in chronological order, it unfolds all at once across different timelines. Admittedly, it wasn’t until my fifth rewatch that I fully understood the timeline and all of the little nuances of the sequencing.
In that sense, it’s still very much a Christopher Nolan film. He manipulates time. He engineers extraordinary explosions. And he relies on Hans Zimmer’s steady score to anchor the story.
What’s different about Dunkirk is that tracking the three separate strands isn’t all that important. Sure, it helps to understand that the ship we see leaving the beach full of soldiers is the same ship that we already saw capsized in the middle of the English Channel, but tracing the web isn’t a requirement to appreciate the film. You won’t fail to understand the movie if the sequencing confuses you. You’ll still understand what is happening. Understanding the intricacies isn’t imperative. The spectacle of it all is enough, because the spectacle is overwhelming.
Chances are that’s how you watched the film the first time around. You were so entranced by the spectacle that you didn’t engage with the complexities of the three different timelines. Even someone like Quentin Tarantino didn’t engage with the three separate timelines at first — something I can relate to. I was wowed by the movie the first time I saw it, but I didn’t emotionally connect to it until my fifth rewatch. The spectacle overwhelmed me.
“Now having seen it four times, I don’t know what I was thinking the first time,” Tarantino said. “Like you said, I just dealt with the spectacle of it all. I couldn’t deal with anything else but the spectacle of it all. And frankly, I really liked the movie, but the spectacle almost numbed me to the experience. I don’t know if I felt anything emotionally because of the spectacle. I was just kind of awed by it. But I don’t even know what I was awed by, to tell you the truth.”
Once you are able to see beyond the spectacle, Nolan’s adherence to time travel pays off, because it’s rewarding once you do realize how it works. You gain an added appreciation for the film. You come to appreciate the audacity of it all. It’s one of the only times where his use of time travel feels completely natural, because if he had merely told the story in sequential order, it would’ve lacked the tension the movie sustains for its entire 106-minute runtime. The three different timelines are necessary.
“For the soldiers embarked in the conflict, the events took place on different temporalities. On land, some stayed one week stuck on the beach. On the water, the events lasted a maximum day; and if you were flying to Dunkirk, the British spitfires would carry an hour of fuel,” Nolan said. “To mingle these different versions of history, one had to mix the temporal strata. Hence the complicated structure; even if the story, once again, is very simple.”
It makes it an incredibly rewatchable film despite the incredibly grim subject matter. It’s worth rewatching just to properly appreciate how Nolan put the puzzle pieces into place, like a conductor of a beautiful and elaborate symphony.
“I don’t think he puts a foot wrong in the whole first half of the movie, but by the time you get to the middle of the movie, then it’s a symphony,” Tarantino said. “Nothing doesn’t work. Everything works. When he cuts back to somebody for 30 seconds, those are the right 30 seconds.”
Tension is the defining characteristic of Dunkirk. The entire 106-minute film — far trimmer than most of Nolan’s work — is a bomb of tension just waiting to explode. It’s like if the opening beach scene in Saving Private Ryan lasted an entire movie. Unlike many of his movies, the tension isn’t building up to an actual explosion, but a moment when the characters are allowed to take a breath and enjoy the peace and comfort of silence — it doesn’t come until Tommy (the lead character on the beach whose name is never spoken) and Alex (Harry Styles) are sitting on a train back in Britain, Farrier runs out of fuel having destroyed one final German bomber and silently glides above the beach until he sets himself down on the sand, and Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), make it back to Britain on their pleasure yacht full of rescued soldiers. It’s when the ticking sound, which Zimmer recorded by using Nolan’s windup pocket watch, finally stops. The tension flatlines. We finally exhale.
The structure of the movie, as confusing as it might be, is what allows the tension to sustain itself over the course of the movie. If Nolan had let the movie unfold in chronological order, it would’ve been impossible to give the air sequences, which take place over the course of a single hour, the same amount of screen time as the land sequences, which take place over the course of a full week. If the movie had opened with the land segment and we’d watched that unfold for six days before the sea portion, which takes place over the course of one day, was introduced, and finally, the air segment was added at the end, it would’ve been a far more boring film filled with stretches of soldiers just standing around on the beach, waiting in lines that lead to nowhere. We see snippets of this, sure, because all that waiting around is an important component of the story of Dunkirk, but they never dominate the movie to the point of boredom. Nolan wisely cuts back and forth between the segments to sustain tension.
“You could actually say the entire film is paced like a trailer — and actually mean that as a compliment,” Tarantino said.
The cross-cutting allows Nolan to offer differing perspectives on the same event. At the end of the movie, when the soldiers arrive in England, they see Collins in his RAF uniform. They scold him for not protecting them above the beaches, even though he just spent a harrowing hour above the English Channel trying to make his way to Dunkirk, fighting off German planes until he was shot down. Meanwhile, the soldiers expect to be ridiculed upon their return, because they see their evacuation as a failure. But the citizens back home, many of whom lent their bodies and boats to the evacuation effort, see their return as a success.
Earlier, when Collins ditches his wounded Spitfire in the sea, Farrier sees Collins raise his arms through the door to the plane. To Farrier in the sky above, it looks like Collins is waving at him. He waves back. It’s only later that we realize Collins is stuck inside the cockpit, the door is jammed, and he’s slowly drowning. His arms are all that he can fit through the gap. He isn’t waving. He’s trying to free himself.
It’s all a matter of perspective.
Collins: [pursued by a German fighter] “He's on me.”
Farrier: [turns to pursue said fighter] “I'm on him.”
What’s also notable is the perspective Nolan leaves out. He never cuts to a war room filled with generals plotting and strategizing. Even when we hear Winston Churchill’s iconic “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, we don’t hear it from Churchill, but from Tommy reading it in the newspaper. Nolan never gives us a moment to breathe by leaving the battlefield. The film’s purpose is to give us an idea of what those boys on the beach and in the air above them and the men on those boats went through. It’s not like those boys and those men were part of operational planning. They’re merely following orders given by older men back home. They don’t have much, if any, agency. Their only goal is to survive.
War is hell. Dunkirk takes us to Hell and back.
The score doesn’t sound like a normal movie score, but it does increase the tension with the constant tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. It’s not the kind of score that is super re-listenable outside of the movie — although I’ve been listening to it nonstop as I write these words — but if the purpose of a score is to enhance the film, Zimmer’s Dunkirk score delivers.
“The film absolutely deserved to win the Oscar for Best Editing, but I think it’s a crime it didn’t win for Best Score,” Tarantino said. “It’s probably the score of one movie in particular that you can define the decade by.”
It isn’t until the armada of boats arrive at Dunkirk that Zimmer gives us what we want: a moment of relief when the music finally swells into a traditional movie score. It’s well worth the wait, because the moment is earned. We waited so long for deliverance. We went through hell. Even though we know it’s coming, the moment hits like euphoria.
It comes in at the four-minute mark.
The movie sounds great beyond just the score. Whether it’s the scream of an incoming enemy bomber, the cheer from the soldiers on the beach after they’ve just been saved by a Spitfire running entirely on empty, the sound of silence when Farrier opens the cockpit of the Spitfire as he glides over the beach, or fully fueled Spitfires flying low across the sea in a pack of three.
“Rolls-Royce Merlin engines,” Mr. Dawson says as the trio passes overhead. “Sweetest sound you could hear out here.”
Like all Nolan movies, the set pieces and cinematography are staggering. From the opening scene with the leaflets floating down from above, to the bombing run on the beach, to the sinking of the ship in the dead of night, to the oil fire scene, to every single second we spend in the cockpit that makes me feel like I’m eight years old again playing with toy airplanes, to the trail of smoke in the distance that marks Dunkirk, it’s plainly gorgeous to look at.
Like many Nolan movies, the character work is lacking. The only difference is that in Dunkirk, it’s by design. Nolan intentionally wrote the movie without individual characters. The main character on the beach is named Tommy, but his name is never spoken throughout the movie. He’s meant to be a blank Englishman to represent everyone stuck on the beach. The entire point of the movie is to make it about the collective experience rather than any one person. There are no recognizable movie stars, like a Leonardo DiCaprio, a Matthew McConaughey, or a Christian Bale. Even Tom Hardy is hidden behind a mask until the final few frames. The actor who plays Tommy is someone named Fionn Whitehead (who absolutely kills it, by the way). Harry Styles is the biggest celebrity in the movie, but I’ll admit I didn’t know who he played in the movie until I looked it up after my fifth and most-recent rewatch. Cillian Murphy’s name in the film is listed as Shivering Soldier. Mark Rylance is a respected actor, but not at all a movie star.
It’s the first Christopher Nolan movie where his lack of character work is a strength rather than a flaw. Dunkirk isn’t about a few likable soldiers trying to survive. It’s about 338,226 soldiers stuck on a beach, trapped between the enemy and the sea. Some are good. Some are proper assholes. All of them want to escape. They all deserve deliverance. Dunkirk tries to tell all of their stories rather than just one or two we can connect with.
"The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story. I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters,” Nolan said. “The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be, or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? Will they be killed by the next bomb while trying to join the mole? Or will they be crushed by a boat while crossing?“
Rewatching it this past week, I was drawn to the juxtaposition of Dunkirk.
The juxtaposition of space. The entire movie takes place in open space. The soldiers line up on vast beaches. The pilots fly in open skies over open seas. The sailors traverse the English Channel. Yet so many of the characters we follow are trapped inside tight spaces. The belly of a ship, with doors locked, that feels like a coffin once the water starts pouring inside. The bridge of a pleasure yacht. The cockpit of a one-man plane.
The juxtaposition of distance. Dunkirk is situated between 39 nautical miles (using the quickest route) and 87 nautical miles (using the longest route) away from England. Nowadays, swimmers regularly make the trip. They’re so close that as Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) says in the early going, “You can practically see it from here. … Home.” Despite their close proximity to home, there’s nothing they can do about it except sit and stare at the sea, waiting for deliverance to appear the horizon. “Seeing home doesn't help us get there, Captain,” Bolton says. Being that close is a tease. Torture. It almost would’ve been easier to stomach if they’d been stuck in, say, Brussels, with no hope for rescue.
The juxtaposition of peace and terror, most evident in the opening scene as English soldiers stroll through a deserted town as horrifying leaflets rain down on them from above. It’s a serene kind of terror.
The juxtaposition of beauty and horror. Dunkirk is a war movie. It’s inarguably gorgeous. But it’s also a gorgeous war movie that feels like a horror movie. The setting is beautiful, but everything that happens on its canvas is horrifying. It reminds me, in some ways, of why Rogue One’s final battle at Scarif worked as well as it does. It’s war in paradise.
The juxtaposition of the enemy. The enemy is all around them, but also invisible. We never see a German during the movie — at least not until the final seconds when Farrier is captured. The most we see of them are their planes, their bombs, their gunfire, and their torpedoes. We see destruction, but not who is causing the destruction. It’s Alien- and Jaws-like. In both horror classics, we seldom see the monster (the xenomorph or the shark). Only the destruction they make. Nolan does something similar with the German war machine. We know they’re all around the Allies. We know the Allies are trapped. But we never actually see who or what is stalking them. When we do see their machinery, we’re alerted to their presence by their distinguishable sound. It’s an effective tool to elevate and sustain tension throughout the film.
Unsurprisingly, Alien is one of the movies that Nolan says inspired Dunkirk. It’s difficult not to also think of Jaws whenever the British ships are attacked by U-boats lurking beneath the surface, hidden from sight. In Dunkirk, the torpedoes are sharks.
It’s a simple story told in a complex way. It deploys an overly complicated method of storytelling, but it’s entirely necessary. There are no well-developed characters, but it’s the most human Nolan’s characters have ever been allowed to be.
It’s victory through defeat. The evacuation, as Churchill said, was a result of “a colossal military disaster.” But the British survived. They couldn’t make it home, so home came for them. Upon their return home, they expected to be mocked for their defeat, but instead, they were met with praise.
Blind Man: “Well done, lads. Well done.”
Alex: “All we did is survive.”
Blind Man: “That's enough.”
Unlike most recent Nolan movies, this movie feels personal to the filmmaker. Nolan grew up in London. But he hasn’t made any British movies in recent years. So often, his recent films lack an identity. If they do feel like they belong to a country, they feel more American than British. Otherwise, they feel more global than British. Dunkirk is deeply British in that it feels as if it only could’ve been made by a British filmmaker who understands British culture and how Dunkirk represents something core to the British identity.
As much as Dunkirk is a movie about a big victory and defeat in the world’s biggest war, it’s also about small victories and small defeats. The roar from the soldiers when Tommy and the French soldier cross over a hole in the mole using a single stick of wood. The distant cheer from the beach when Farrier, running on empty, shoots down an attacking German bomber. Farrier getting captured by the Germans having defended Dunkirk despite knowing he wasn’t going to have enough fuel to return home. George’s death. George’s article in the local newspaper. Britain surviving, but leaving so many French soldiers behind. I admire Dunkirk because it embraces the smaller victories in war and doesn’t shy away from presenting the small victories and defeats and making them feel as heavy as they would to the people involved.
Sometimes it’s not as simple as winning and losing. Sometimes a loss can be more rewarding than a win. For the Germans who pushed the British out of Europe, their failure to obliterate the British at Dunkirk cost them the war. For the British who were pushed out of Europe while sustaining devastating casualties, their ability to survive gave them a chance to eventually win the war, a chance they ended up taking.
War is messy. Victories are composed of smaller losses. Losses are composed of smaller victories. It’s all a bloody mess. An English victory through loss. A German loss through victory.
Hollywood doesn’t churn out Dunkirk movies like D-Day movies. Which makes sense. America hadn’t entered World War II when Dunkirk unfolded. This was purely a British (and to a lesser degree, a French) event. For once, America doesn’t matter.
What’s refreshing about Dunkirk is that it gives us a purely English perspective on World War II, which isn’t something my American eyes and ears often see and hear. Most American World War II movies treat World War II as if it was ours to save. What they don’t tell us is that we were only able to save it because of what happened prior to our entrance. The British and the rest of the Allies survived against the enemy. Without their survival, our entrance would’ve been rendered useless. Their survival matters just as much as our arrival.
It’s difficult to imagine an American filmmaker making this movie, because Americans are wired differently. The evacuation of Dunkirk wouldn’t be romanticized in American culture. Losses and retreats aren’t cherished. We don’t look for silver linings in our losses. We don’t find meaning in defeat. Instead, we merely call our failures successes and move on as if we actually won something, even when we win nothing at all.
Dunkirk is about finding victory in a colossal failure all the while acknowledging the existence of the failure. Again, in the aftermath of the evacuation, Churchill didn’t say “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED”. He called it a “a colossal military disaster” while vowing to fight on and “never surrender.” It’s about how enduring can be enough of a victory when everything around us is falling apart. It’s about a nation’s citizens doing their part to bail out their leaders from mistakes made during a fight against an unrelenting enemy. It’s about surviving and accepting survival as an acceptable reward.
As the world around us crumbles, as our leaders fail us time and time again, as it becomes increasingly clear that it’ll be up to individual citizens to do our part to turn the tide in what should already be characterized as a loss, what could hold more universal resonance than Dunkirk? It’s up to us find our own victory in this failure — like the British’s victory in their defeat at Dunkirk.