One of my favorite moments in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises occurs at the end of the film when Batman, facing almost certain death as he gets ready to fly a nuclear bomb out of Gotham City, reveals his true identity to Jim Gordon by saying, “A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.” Bruce Wayne’s recollection of the memory when the two of them first met is a profoundly resonant moment; it is a reminder that heroism cannot be measured in any quantifiable way other than the sacrifices we make for others when they are at their lowest point. Christopher Nolan’s latest epic film Dunkirk expands on that theme; it is a stunningly brilliant film and worthy of the sacrifice that so many made.
While many Americans might not have a fixed memory of the events of late May and early June of 1940, British citizens are all too familiar with those two weeks. The Allies’ defense of the Western Front against the Nazis had collapsed, leaving almost 400,000 men trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk. Complicating matters was the war-inflicted damage to the docks in the harbor, leaving the only means of evacuation to the beach and to the eastern mole (sea wall) protecting the entrance to the harbor.
As a narrative storytelling device, Dunkirk proceeds to tell the story of the events in three distinctive time formats. The first, “The Mole,” unfolds over a week of time and focuses on the soldiers on the beach and the attempt to survive by a particular few who try by any means necessary to escape the beach. Two soldiers, played by Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard, meet over the dead body of a soldier on the beach and reach a never-spoken agreement to help each other survive. Finding another soldier who is wounded, they use a stretcher to carry him to the mole in an attempt to “cut the line” so to speak, to escape. The wounded soldier makes it on, but the two are dismissed; they then watch helplessly as the transport is hit with a bomb. Hiding on the support beams below the mole, the two end up saving a third soldier gamely played by pop star Harry Styles. When the men finally find a way on to another vessel, our spirits are only lifted until the ship is hit with a torpedo.
“The Sea” shortens its narrative time to one day and follows the story of a father (remarkably played by Mark Rylance), his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and the son’s teenage friend (Barry Keoghan) who answer the call in Britain for boats to cross the English Channel to help ferry the stranded men back to Dover. Instead of allowing their boat to be requisitioned by the navy, the father and the two boys set off on their own across the channel, joining what would become a fleet of tugboats, pleasure boats and fishing trawlers braving U-boat prowled waters to lend assistance. On the way, they find a survivor of a sunken mine sweeper sitting on the hull of a capsized boat. Played by frequent Christopher Nolan player Cillian Murphy, the shell-shocked man only speaks when he finds out that the boat is actually headed back to Dunkirk instead of home. The tragedy that unfolds on the boat is played with such empathic skill by Rylance in dealing with a man who only hours before in the Mole narrative was heroic himself in trying to rescue men from a torpedoed steamer.
Finally, “The Air” breathtakingly plunges us into the story of three pilots flying British Spitfires in defense of the harbor and the men. Their story unfolds in only an hour of narrative time as they dogfight with German planes to try to keep the men on the beach and in the boats safe. The pilots, played as absolute professional military men by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden, struggle against the onslaught of enemy fire and low fuel tanks. “The Air” features some of the most striking aerial footage of those dogfights and the frightening act of ditching a plane in the water. Perhaps most striking about those scenes was the sound; the sound of the bullets striking the steel of the plane was frighteningly real. It didn’t feel augmented or hyper-enhanced in any way.
What is most remarkable about Dunkirk is then how the threads of the film’s timelines all start to converge. Scenes that take place on gray, rainy days on the beach in the soldier’s sequence merge into sunny skies in the story of the family on the boat and the blinding sun with the Spitfires. The dramatic tension achieved in separate but equally harrowing drowning sequences reminds us that many of the men killed at sea in the war didn’t die from gunfire or explosions. The threads of the narrative finally converge as Commander Bolton, the pier master played by an always dependable Kenneth Brannagh, looks to the sea and sees the armada of private vessels dotting the horizon as the ships take fire from the Germans who then take fire from the Spitfires. The three soldiers we met earlier have joined with another group of men who are now hidden in a beached fishing boat waiting for the tide to come along. When the boat takes on fire as that tide rushes into the hold in the bullet holes, the audience feels the panic and the sorrow as the men accuse one of our heroes of being a German spy. It is a heartbreaking scene, and one which will remind viewers of the ferry boat scene in The Dark Knight.
Christopher Nolan doesn’t make it easy for film viewers. Many of his films feature time jumps and experimental nonlinear ways of redefining narrative structure. And much has been said by critics of his films (and Dunkirk in particular) of these methods, criticizing his films for “lack of clarity.” But I would argue that films like Dunkirk that stretch our understanding of plot and narrative serve to expand the art of film. Just as impressionistic artists were mocked and ridiculed for not being “realistic,” so too do filmmakers like Christopher Nolan push back on the “traditional” plot devices of film. Most importantly, his attempts to play with linear time in the storytelling actually serves the impact of the film and the message.
Many war films are written with melodramatic back stories in an attempt to make us care about the protagonists, as if we wouldn’t care about watching them engaged in the hardships of war. In particular, a film like Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor spends almost 90 minutes of a 3 hour running time building up the romantic triangle that will, of course, one day be crushed by the war. Dunkirk has no misconceptions. Christopher Nolan, who is usually given to longer running times to tell his stories, has created a sparse, tightly wound film which does just enough to engage us in the action and then lets the heroes of Dunkirk do their thing. The young soldier we meet in the beginning of the film doesn’t speak a word until the very end of the film. Tom Hardy’s character barely speaks more than 20 words, yet we cheer for him at the end for his heroism and act of resistance. Mark Rylance’s character, a father sailing his boat and his son into a war zone, does so with only words of encouragement for his son and compassion for the soldier who inadvertently hurts the other teenager on board. So much in Dunkirk is conveyed by looks and by visual imagery. The images in the film are so sharp, so expressive and are enough to promote the theme voiced by Winston Churchill at the end of the film: “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Dunkirk reminds us that true heroism in the face of insurmountable danger can take many forms; sometimes it’s as simple as surviving to fight another day, as did the 330,000 men who lived on after those terrible days.