Most war films use the facts of history to weave a rich and moving tapestry of lost causes and heroic gestures that end up being — in some hopeful, narrative sense — "worth it." You will feel the chaos and lost hope — you'll wonder, with your protagonist, what some poor young person's sacrifice was really for — but there tends to be a poignant answer. The story of the world will go on, and it's that much more poetic for those lost and broken threads.
Dunkirk is a hollowed-out version of this kind of film.
Christopher Nolan's grueling new movie about the massive undertaking to evacuate hundreds of thousands of trapped Allied troops from the Dunkirk beaches isn't about victory at all — or catharsis, or the war's final and welcome end. It's about being surrounded, trapped, and at the mercy of enemy fire. It's about the visceral terror of drowning and fire and the random spray of bullets and bombs. It's about shellshock on the one hand, and the intellective horror of distributing salvation when one wounded soldier displaces seven standing men on the other. It's about the helplessness of a superior officer watching those loaded hospital ships go down in flames as Luftwaffe planes bomb from above, and a private's impulse to abandon honor and cling to life through almost any means.
That's not, in itself, that unusual. The horror of war films almost always lives here, in the way you're forced out of a particular person's subjectivity — either because they die or because the scale of war demands it. This is often achieved through a bird's-eye view, which offers the relief that comes whenever you turn human lives into strategic abstractions. (The pleasure of a conversation between commanders is the illusion that someone is in charge.)
Nolan doesn't offer this; there's very little dialogue in this movie, and what little of it we can actually understand offers the opposite of strategy. Kenneth Branagh plays Commander Bolton — the man charged with embarking as many troops as he can — with the kind of British composure that only accentuates his defeat. In lieu of an instructive bird's-eye view, Nolan multiplies the upsetting individual perspectives so that viewers endure the subjectivities of all these tortured men. Kudos to Dunkirk's sound department; their sound editing does the most wrenching work.
Dunkirk doesn't seek to orient you, then, either in history or in space. Quite the opposite. It never goes into the German point of view and it easily skates over the French version of this point in the Second World War. Instead, it zooms into the British experience and splits the story of Dunkirk into three different story lines: "The Mole," "The Air," and "The Sea." The first covers the week on the beach as soldiers (played by Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles) try to survive long enough to evacuate. "The Air" covers a single hour during which three Spitfire pilots (two are played by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) try to stave off the German bombers. And "The Sea" covers the day-long journey of one of the "little ships" — a pleasure yacht — as its owner (Mark Rylance) responds to the call and crosses the English Channel with his son and employee (Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan) to rescue what soldiers he can.
You'll notice that these are three extremely different timescales. Dunkirk doesn't care; it cuts from men swimming in oily water at night to Tom Hardy targeting a bomber in broad daylight and expects you to go with it. That indifference to continuity accentuates the film's experiment in disorientation. Unlike Memento, Nolan's greatest experiment in discontinuous storytelling, the angles don't add up. The point is fragmentation, incoherence, shock.
It's remarkable — while we're on the subject of disorientation — how little the stunning establishing shots actually establish. Even overhead surveys of the beaches prove useless when you enter a particular soldier's point of view. Nolan opts for an exhausting and punishingly effective series of subjective takes on the experience of Dunkirk, which means the settings shift depending on the point of desperation they're depicting. The beach stretches (the way the beaches will) into a kind of maddening infinite expanse when someone most needs to cross it. The sky shrinks into an awful video game. The friendliest medium turns out to be the sea: Here people are plucked out and saved with relative ease. The most interesting thing about that initial narrative breakdown of Dunkirk into land, sea, and air is how fearsomely porous these become by the film's conclusion.
If war movies sometimes emphasize the volume of death — I'm thinking here of Gone With the Wind's legendary shot of the wounded soldiers, which zooms out and out to show the massive casualties — Nolan resists. He's uninterested in emphasizing scale. The hundreds of thousands of soldiers whose lives hang in the balance rarely find their way onscreen. You don't see the heaps of corpses that should litter the beaches, the piles of abandoned equipment (enough was left behind to arm eight divisions at least), or the horrifying mess Dunkirk surely left behind. There's almost no blood, even when nearby soldiers bounce from being blown up by bombs.
Instead, the camera follows small groups of scrabbling men. There's a prevailing and dreadful feeling of emptiness. What visual references there are to the carnage and loss — a collection of helmets on an empty beach — seem stylized and symbolic.
In lieu of a documentary approach to the mess this was, Nolan opts for immersion. In a recent diatribe explaining how Netflix's model of digital distribution hurts theaters, Nolan remarked that films like Dunkirk exist to "make you feel like you are there, and the only way to do that is through theatrical distribution."
On this front, he totally succeeds. Dunkirk is sensory; it will wreck your nerves. When one of our point-of-view characters is in the hold of a ship, its underwater clanks echo in your head. The impact of shells hitting metal echoes in your bones. I flinched visibly and often; the sound targets you. Hans Zimmer's score helps. There's so little dialogue in this film that the bulk of its emotional work is atmospheric. Zimmer's score captures the shellshocked experience of these soldiers — his theme screams dread and just won't let up. When a point-of-view character gets a reprieve — a jelly sandwich, a cup of tea — the music doesn't change. You are never safe.
I've said that Dunkirk is a hollowed-out war film; the end of the film — which I won't spoil — confirms that. There are words (important words, for a film with so few of them) but they come from a speech expressly intended to fend off irresponsible delusions of victory or relief.
The performances reflect that; as good as they are, they're secondary to the film's formal experiments in sound, anachronic juxtapositions, and exquisitely claustrophobic, selective, disorienting and stunning cinematography. Dunkirk is far more sensory than documentary or educational; it's less about the history it depicts than the attendant panic. The real Operation Dynamo, it's worth saying, succeeded thanks in part to the 40,000 French troops who waited till the British had evacuated and surrendered, becoming prisoners of war. Dunkirk pointedly ignores them; the only character who winds up a POW is British. I don't know how much these flirtations with the truth matter. Dunkirk is closer to an art film than a typical war film, and it's certainly the strangest, most ambitious summer blockbuster you're likely to see.