“Thus it was that the port of Dunkirk was kept open. When it was found impossible for the armies of the north to reopen their communications to Amiens with the main French armies, only one choice remained. It seemed, indeed, forlorn. The Belgian, British and French armies were almost surrounded. Their sole line of retreat was to a single port and to its neighbouring beaches. They were pressed on every side by heavy attacks and far outnumbered in the air.”
Winston Churchill’s speech delivered to House of Commons / June 4 1940
In an unusually cold May of 1940, German forces advanced into France and drove the Allied troops into the wall of the English Channel and trapping them in the port town of Dunkirk. French, Belgium, and Dutch soldiers, alongside the British, desperately were counting the minutes upon the vast beaches of Dunkirk while waiting on a few ships for safety across the Channel. With the German forces closing in, Dunkirk was hit with a barrage of fire from land, sea, and air putting close to 400,000 lives in constant danger. With meager support from French/British ground and air forces, nearly all the men were miraculously safely evacuated utilizing every serviceable ship or civilian boat in the area. Churchill used this event to rally the British people in their continued fight against the growing German empire.
This is the basis of writer/director Christopher Nolan’s newest venture, Dunkirk. It is a mesmerizing study of time and pressure. It is abundantly clear, based upon past projects such as Inception, Memento, Interstellar, and even Insomnia (notice all the one word titles in his catalog, including the newly released Dunkirk), Nolan has always been fascinated with effects of time and its relation to human perceptions and behaviors. Dunkirk is no exception while it tinkers with land, sea, and air stories with each unfolding section several hours behind the other. It builds tension within one perception, while giving more information from another view. We get swept up in the experience of a particular story, only to discover we do not have all of the specific information of that event as we delve into another perception. No exposition is really given to any of the characters. We are expected to discover for ourselves who these people are within the different facets of time and dimension. This is an experience film (much like Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line or Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), but Nolan brings such a ferocious tension throughout the proceedings that leaves one breathless. War is not pretty and this film certainly sows the cruelty and ugliness of man’s inhumanity to man. It also shows the valor and the human instinct to help fellow strangers in need. There is a toughness to Nolan’s images, but they are never just cosmetic for the sake of aesthetic worthiness. Dunkirk is filled with arresting camera work that rightly puts the viewer into the fear of these men. The screaming German Junkers throttling towards their prey on the beaches of Dunkirk are nail bitingly tense. The running squad being picked off by a snipers places you directly in the line of fire as you scramble for safety. This is war where the only option is to survive.
“..the politique des auteurs seems to me to hold and defend an essential critical truth that the cinema is in need of more than the other arts, precisely because an act of true artistic creation is more uncertain and vulnerable in the cinema than elsewhere…”
André Bazin / La Politque des auteurs / 1957
In Nolan we trust is a moniker coined by fanboys during his Batman days when anticipating his next adult take on the dark knight. It is actually a statement that fits. Christopher Nolan is a modern cinema auteur who believes in film language as a visual aesthetic with limitless possibilities. The name is synonymous with craftsmanship which would make any smart person look forward to a new work of his. He can rightly be compared to another master auteur, Stanley Kubrick (Nolan is British). Like Kubrick, Nolan is a perfectionist and oversees every aspect of his films. No detail is too small and every shot contains information to further the story or idea. This is what makes both Kubrick and Nolan’s films entirely re-watchable. Dunkirk resembles a Kubrick film in the slightly detached god-like stance in direction and the sparse dialogue which makes the viewer pay more attention to the images on the screen. His playfulness of relational time and audience expectations is also very Kubrickian in the cinematic sense. Nolan adheres to the old school of film-making which is refreshing in this day of CGI overkill. His dedication to an artistic vision, within the confines of big budget films, is what makes him stand far apart from his contemporaries who sometimes sell out for the sake of success. One need look no further than the mind bending epic that is Inception, which goes against all what makes a mainstream big budget film successful. It is filled with dread and the loss of self control with an ending that is as ambiguous as it gets.
Dunkirk is an unexpected surprise (well, maybe not that big of surprise since we are talking about Christopher Nolan after all) because it paints upon a WWII canvas for the audience in a brand new hard light. We are simply thrust into the proceedings, while Nolan expects us to figure it out. It is a rarity with a mainstream film that the audience is expected to be smart. None of his past films pander to the latest trend, for his films become the latest trend with originality and daring. He may not hit it out of the ballpark every time (Interstellar and its ending), but this is a film-maker that consistently challenges you and dares to ask the questions no one else in big budget films ask; who are we? What is truth? What is really our perceived reality? Where are we going?
The microsom of society is in the form of a civilian boat christened Moonstone which exemplifies family, sacrifice, and honor. War affects everyone, not just the brave men/women in battlefield. Moonstone suffers tragedy in the face of war, as if the unit were back in London during the nightly blitzkrieg attacks. There is nothing lofty or sentimental in Nolan’s treatment of the Moonstone participants. It just is. When tragedy does strike, the boy and his father honor the dead. Consequences are accepted and some are haunted forever as a result of it. These people tried to make a difference…and some succeeded.
In Nolan we do indeed trust. His eye is on the prize at all times with his usual concerted and secretive efforts. Dunkirk may be his finest film in which everything is honed to its essential properties. Cinema started out as a visual medium and Nolan pledges his allegiance with his latest release. Every image tells a story, such as the soldier at Dunkirk beach throwing off his gear and attempting to swim back home in a suicidal act. There are many such moments which begs a second or third viewing. This is the kind of big budget movie making we need with far reaching ideas and the understanding of cinema language. Christopher Nolan is an auteur for the 21st century. Let’s hope he continues upon his personal artistic path and continues to give us stories that astound and challenge our way of thinking.