‘Dunkirk’ is a Christopher Nolan movie that doesn’t need to be solved
Christopher Nolan is something of an anomaly in 2017. He’s a Hollywood director who has leveraged his consistent box office success — abetted by an established popular franchise — to craft big-budget original features, shot and often distributed on film, outside of the dominant model. Commercial success obviously begets creative freedom, but Nolan stands apart from his peers partly because he has successfully, and infamously, tapped into a collective audience desire to “solve” works of art. Many of his films present superficially complex, but hermetically sealed worlds that allow people to master them. In a sense, his puzzle-box technique has achieved widespread popularity because of its core simplicity. His films simultaneously confuse and (over-)explain. He wants to confound but also to hold your hand.
However, Nolan’s modus operandi is far from invalid. In fact, he’s pretty damn good at accomplishing exactly what he sets out to do. He makes watchable entertainment that grasps at mature emotional ideas, some (2000’s Memento, 2006’s The Prestige) much better than others (2010’s Inception), and also flatters its audience. He’s a rationalist through and through, which means everything in his films exists within the realm of natural logic. In a 2014 essay for the Dissolve, Mike D’Angelo argues that Nolan is “a die-hard materialist,” and that “underlying nearly every film he’s ever made, no matter how fanciful, is his conviction that the universe can be explained entirely by physical processes.” There is no real mystery. There are only questions with definitive answers. The world is simple, miserable and solid all the way through.
Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk, about the “miracle of deliverance” that occurred by the seaside town in the early days of World War II, stands in sharp contrast to his previous work precisely because it doesn’t pose a question at all. Its sole aim to immerse viewers in the evacuation of Allied soldiers precludes much of his established style, such as expository dialogue (limited to a title card and a couple scenes featuring Kenneth Branagh as a Navy commander) and mythic iconography (e.g. tattoos, a spinning top, bats). The film’s temporal and perspectival shifts aren’t designed to elucidate but simply to unmoor. In turn, he has created a film with nothing to solve, presumably because it’s based on the historical record, but also possibly because war itself offers no simple solutions.
Nevertheless, he still commits to “confusing” his audience, albeit to radically different ends. Dunkirk features a nonlinear triptych narrative that covers three levels of the evacuation — land, sea and air — over three different periods of time — a week, a day and an hour, respectively. This scans as a typically Nolan approach to plot, a roundabout way to bring you to a telegraphed conclusion, but since the destination is a known entity (the rescue was a success), Nolan instead utilizes this structure to absorb audiences into the moment-by-moment uncertainty of the soldiers.
The men on the ground don’t know if or when their saviors will arrive, the men on the sea don’t know how many they can save in time and the men in the air don’t know the full extent of the events below. Though the three threads eventually overlap, there’s no burden for the viewer to piece together the full picture from the limited perspectives. There’s no explicit reveal that the audience must grasp. Nolan merely attempts to situate you in the psychology of those in the thick of it. He wants you to feel the incoherent fear and chaos that those kids felt as they waited out their fates.
Nolan doesn’t even provide the comfort of characterization as an anchoring force. Though his subjects have always been limited to their narrative functions, Nolan never once goes through the motions of character with Dunkirk. In this case, he privileges the collective over the individual by systematically stripping away backstory and personality, neither of which matter in terms of literal survival.
Some might be able to differentiate the faces of the relatively unknown cast (with the possible exception of Harry Styles for the One Direction demographic), but it’s precisely the point that it’s unnecessary. Personas are irrelevant and actions are crucial. This means Dunkirk lives and dies on a scene-by-scene basis, by what the figures on screen do to escape their current moment. There’s no endgame beyond their immediate circumstance. “All we did is survive,” a soldier quips to a blind greeter as he welcomes him back home. “That’s enough,” the man responds, without any sentimentality. It almost goes without saying that survival is literally enough for Dunkirk as well.
In the same essay, D’Angelo claims there’s truth to the charge that Nolan’s films lack “a sense of poetry,” precisely because he doesn’t allow anything outside of the material realm to invade his cinematic space. Yet in its staunch refusal to function quite like other Nolan films while still being a Nolan film, Dunkirk actually allows for the transcendental to access his world. Three soldiers watch as one of their fellow men solemnly walks into the sea, likely to swim out and never return. A pilot awaits capture while he watches his plane burn on the beach. There are aerial shots of tiny soldiers akin to ants waiting for their literal Queen to save them. Empty helmets lie on the sand.
For a man almost too desperate to underline everything, these moments represent rare restraint on Nolan’s part. These images suggest more than words could ever offer. Moreover, Nolan allows them to exist on their own terms rather than as chess pieces on a proverbial board. By not turning war into filmic gamesmanship and by allowing action to speak for itself, Dunkirk might be Nolan’s most controlled and emotional effort yet.
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