Overview: A military failure strands nearly half a million Allied soldiers on a beach in northern France during WWII, and with German forces closing in, the soldiers face a near-impossible evacuation. Warner Bros.; 2017; Rated PG-13; 106 minutes.
Genre Bending: A few soldiers, walking through the deserted streets of a picturesque town made up of quaint buildings along cobblestone streets, scour through the open shop windows searching for food, water, cigarettes, anything left behind. Small paper leaflets swirl around them, picking up in gusts of wind. One solider gathers a few, quickly scans the sheets, and then crumples them as he undoes his belt to squat in the street. The flier is written in English with a crude map warning death or surrender are the only ways out. Before he has a chance to use his makeshift, enemy-engineered toilet paper, shots pop off through the streets, and the men run for cover. One by one, each is picked off save for the flier-wielding young man. As he makes his way back to the beach, the sole survivor of his short expedition, without pause, he again finds a place to unbuckle his belt in the sand to finish the task for which he was last interrupted. And this scene sets the tone for Dunkirk. There isn’t a celebratory second for this momentary survival. There won’t be a turn to the next solider in line for a knowing glance, sigh of relief, or humorous quip about luck. No, there isn’t a moment of pause; even as bombs strike the beach, eliminating single file group after single file group, each man who can still stand picks himself back up and silently returns to his line, waiting for a ship that isn’t on its way.
If Dunkirk ultimately finds itself categorized as a war movie, filed away with the likes of Saving Private Ryan, Pearl Harbor, or last year’s Hacksaw Ridge, it very well could read as a failed exercise in the genre. Devoid of the character depth, the love story, and the gore—a combination that typically brings about the seal of approval for retellings of the battles of World War II—Dunkirk doesn’t find its home in the tropes of successful (albeit not always great) war films. Rather, writer/director Christopher Nolan creates a movie much closer to a psychological thriller, set with the backdrop of one of the most catastrophic military failures the world has seen.
Character Development: Nolan’s aversion to his characters speaking seems like the dialogue equivalent of the anticipation for Spielberg’s shark or dinosaur. Hardly a sentence is uttered in the opening scenes, and the young soldiers we follow (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles—each bearing a striking, arguably intentional resemblance to one another) rarely break from that near-silence for the duration of the film. It doesn’t just seem as though there’s little dialogue; the script is noticeably slim—about half the length of the average feature length film. And if there will be one resounding criticism of Dunkirk it will surely be its characters, devoid of backstories, hopes and dreams, and often even names. Cillian Murphy, given as many lines as any of the speaking characters, is never named. The credits offer nothing other than “Shivering Soldier” to a character of equal importance to any other. It would be easy to dismiss the lack of character development as a film lost in the technicalities with a preoccupied director more consumed with true-to-life ships and shots. This Shivering Soldier is our everyman—as nameless as those dying around him, marking the place of every real-life man who suffered on the shores of Dunkirk.
And while that choice may work in theory, can you truly care about characters you know nothing about? It’s an interesting exercise for me to argue the effectiveness of a film—and I do think Dunkirk may be one of the most effective depictions of war—with little to no character development. Of all the criteria I have for films, my most staunchly argued and surest deal breaker is whether I care about the fate of its characters. I find myself walking out of theaters shrugging, “It was okay. I just didn’t really care about what happened to any of them.” And the conversation essentially ends there. There isn’t enough good about any film to compensate for poorly developed or badly written characters. And Dunkirk plays a dangerous game with its characters.
We’re conditioned to value human life based upon the value other humans place on those lives. We see it in whose lives we must debate matter, whose genocides make the news (much less garner intervention), and which genders are to blame for their own abuse. This notion of the value of human life teetering on a scale, some being inherently worth more than others, is nothing new, and our need to humanize others to care is problematic at best. Perhaps Dunkirk won’t work for most average movie-goers for this reason. Nolan doesn’t take the time to convince us why we should care if these men live or die. In fact, who makes it out alive is largely irrelevant in this film; never once will a camera hover over a dead body or pan to a man’s face after his buddy dies. If you find yourself invested in their survival, it can’t be because of a backstory. But perhaps Nolan’s immersive storytelling alone is investment enough.
Land, Sea, Air: Three narrative sections—land, sea, and air—allow audiences to quickly lose their bearing, with each only initially marked by a unit of time: one week, one day, and one hour, respectively. The land is held by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and most of the soldiers we see; the sea is given to the brilliant Mark Rylance and his civilian crew (Barry Keoghan and Tom Glynn-Carney); and the air is shared by Jack Lowden and the forever-masked Tom Hardy. Dunkirk’s real-life nine day evacuation is woven into a non-linear structure, and only as the film progresses do the three narrative threads weave in closely together, our characters’ intersections being the most grounding pieces of the puzzle. And while the film likely would have been equally great told in a traditional, linear fashion, any opportunity for uneasiness or confusion effectively lent to the undercurrent of anxiety. From the decision to film on the actual beaches of Dunkirk to creating realistic-sounding gunfire to the quiet shuffle of survivors heading to safety, realistic depictions ensure audiences aren’t spared a moment of the fish-in-a-barrel anxiety our characters experience. The tension is allowed to build. Characters look to the sky before the audience can see the Spitfire planes or hear the zip of bullets beginning to shower the beach. We’re never even explicitly shown who our enemy is. In fact, we don’t get a glimpse of the men we’re fighting until the film’s conclusion. At no point is the audience privy to information our characters don’t have. The score, by Hans Zimmer, weaves in amongst the gunfire and bombs and at times creates its own brand of distortion, minimizing the sounds of explosions or creating noise that is just close enough to the screech of a plane to give the audience pause. Dunkirk is a technical marvel, creating claustrophobia in a moment and desolation in the next, boasting tension and suspense rivaling some of the best horror films.
Overall: At its core, Dunkirk is a survival film—an immersive, all-consuming assault from the very first scene that doesn’t let up, even in its final moments.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.