‘Dunkirk’ is a harrowing masterpiece with minimal dialogue

Nolan’s ambition, previously his greatest asset, was slowly becoming his primary weakness. Until “Dunkirk.”

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 10/3/17 12:10am

In many ways, “Dunkirk” is the film Christopher Nolan was meant to make. This is not to say that it’s his best film, though it is certainly among the best. While watching the film, one senses that it is the payoff for all his efforts to simultaneously become commercially successful and critically beloved over the last 20 years. After watching “Inception,” which is undoubtedly the most Nolan-esque of all the Nolan films, I feared that the director had reached his pinnacle. His unique and thrilling combination of labyrinthine narratives, philosophical themes and nuanced characters seemed to have been pushed to its limit. After reaching the top of Mt. Everest, there simply was no other peak to summit. His next two features reflected this fact; “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Interstellar” are both decent films that fall short of greatness because they are so overstuffed. Nolan’s ambition, previously his greatest asset, was slowly becoming his primary weakness. Until “Dunkirk.”

In 1940, thousands of Allied soldiers, mostly composed of the British and the French, retreated to the French seaside city of Dunkirk and were surrounded on all sides. While the situation was dire, over 300,000 soldiers were evacuated when a flotilla of British civilian vessels crossed the English Channel to assist. Many historians consider the evacuation a turning point in the war — if it had not been successful, the Allied forces would not have been able to withstand their opposition for much longer.

“Dunkirk” chronicles these events by narrowing in on three stories. One is about Tommy, a young private desperately trying to get on a ship headed home. Another follows Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, a British civilian sailing his own ship to Dunkirk in the hopes of doing some good. And the final story features Tom Hardy, once again hidden behind a mask, as a Spitfire pilot flying to France.

These stories all take place over radically different timeframes, yet the film weaves them together as though they occur simultaneously. The end result is trademark Nolan, refracting time and space to create a mosaic of war. Indeed, the entire film feels like a culmination of the director’s career, welding the blockbuster spectacle he has recently become famous for with a tight, non-linear story structure reminiscent of earlier work like “Memento.” But “Dunkirk” is admirable in no small part because it is also something new for Nolan. The director most known for weighty and thought-provoking philosophical speeches has stripped his newest film of any and all extraneous dialogue. What remains is purely utilitarian. Thus, Nolan showcases his mastery of visual storytelling, employing techniques innovated during the Silent Era to great effect.

Naturally, the film also owes a great debt to the countless war films that have preceded it. Several critics have declared it the greatest of its kind since “Saving Private Ryan,” though if I’m being perfectly honest with myself, I think I might prefer “Dunkirk.” Both films focus heavily on the brutality and anguish of war, but each comes to a distinct conclusion. “Ryan” may portray war as horrific, but it ultimately reaffirms that the sacrifices are worth making. It is a harsh film to be sure but also a deeply patriotic one.

“Dunkirk,” on the other hand, is almost nihilistic in its outlook. The final shot is haunting, contrasting Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech with Tommy’s shell-shocked face. It is a potent reminder that even if the sacrifices of war can be justified, they are still clearly sacrifices and individuals suffer tremendously from the trauma. Resultantly, “Dunkirk” doesn’t feature any typically grandiose moments of heroism as one might expect from this story. Yet it isn’t a totally hopeless film either. At the end, we realize that heroism in war is not necessarily an extraordinary act of bravery but sometimes the mere act of survival, of making it through the day.

This overarching theme is most clearly encapsulated in the character of Tommy, played with remarkable intensity by Fionn Whitehead. The film may juggle multiple storylines, but by design Tommy is the closest thing we have to a main character. In another film, Tommy might be characterized as a coward. In Nolan’s hands, his decisions become decidedly relatable. Once again, he just wants to survive. Whitehead, a newcomer, has barely more than a dozen lines to work with, and he sells his character with a magnetic performance.

To be clear, the film is not without its flaws. As with all films, and particularly films about real historical events, “Dunkirk” is deeply rooted in the culture that helped produced it. As other critics have pointed out, the narrative is occasionally limited by the influence of Britain’s rather whitewashed and sanitized reinterpretation of its own history.

Furthermore, some viewers have quibbled about the dearth of historical contextualization and character arcs. Such complaints might initially make some sense, yet both decisions are clearly very deliberate on the part of Nolan and his production team. “Dunkirk” is a film about the visceral experience of war and not the historical, political or ideological contexts that come to anchor such experiences in history books. Moreover, I reject the notion that the film is somehow hollow or lacking in humanity because so little is explained about the central characters. Nolan is clearly quite purposeful in his attempts to eschew certain clichés, such as providing the soldiers with backstories so that we will care more when they are placed in perilous situations. “Dunkirk” never provides the luxury of these familiar narrative tropes. Instead, the film seems to suggest that audiences shouldn’t require arbitrary reasons to feel anguish and sympathy at the sight of another human in pain.

I mentioned “Saving Private Ryan” earlier, but “Dunkirk” really owes even more to a better war film ­— coincidentally, released in the same year as “Ryan”— Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line.” “Dunkirk” and “The Thin Red Line” are beautiful and unnerving meditations on war. But, unlike Malick, Nolan does not fill his film’s beautiful silences with philosophical narrations. Rather, he places us so firmly inside the subjective experiences of his characters that we are encouraged to create our own narrations.

If we were in their positions, how might we muse about the impacts, implications and pains of the battlefield? For that reason alone, “Dunkirk” is the best film I’ve seen so far this year.

Rating: 9/10

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