Christopher Nolan’s name arouses a special kind of attention, not only among cinephiles but, crucially, for once-a-year film-goers as well, an audience majority whose decision to go see a film relies on a movie’s buzz and word of mouth. At this juncture in his career any single one of Nolan’s completed directorial efforts must be considered something of an event, especially now that his work has been either referenced or parodied by popular culture to excess, or better yet because they’re associated with everything that’s commended (and painfully lacking) in cinema: resourcefulness, originality, technique and formal intelligence. It’s a curious occasion when among the summer’s most discussed films is a WWII epic (those are usually reserved for Oscar season) but one can’t complain considering how Nolan’s now 10th feature, among his remarkable formal and technical achievements, is the only big-budgeted vehicle appropriating the long-standing genre traditions of cinema’s masterclasses, from The Wages of Fear’s elaborately imagined nightmare scenarios to The Battle for Algiers’ immense structural complexity.
Nolan’s newest film is made up of three narratives (all occurring within individual time frames converging toward a shared climax). The first point of view (“The Mole”, a stretch of beach on Dunkirk’s coast) is that of a young English soldier Tommy (played by newcomer Fionn Whitehead) who’s introduced wandering alongside a small group of soldiers in the now-evacuated streets of Dunkirk. Tommy is Nolan’s spectator adrift in chaos, enduring some of the nightmarish mental and physical tests experienced by the evacuees of Dunkirk–escaping sinking ships and ducking at the sight Luftwaffe dive bombers. Nolan combines inventive craft and emotional distance to create nothing short of a visceral experience of war–note, for example, how Nolan’s odd camera placements purposely confuse our perception of vertical and horizontal spaces, giving us the sensation of a sinking ship’s inescapable confines.
The second narrative (“The Sea”) provides Dunkirk with a much needed sensorial reprieve (as well as stark psychoanalysis) as it follows English citizen Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) as he readies his recreational vessel as part of an increasingly desperate rescue effort by the English government to evacuate the stranded soldiers. Sailing over the English Channel Mr. Dawson, along with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carnney) and friend George (Barry Keoghan), find an unexpected threat in the lone shell-shocked survivor of a U-Boat attack (played by Cillian Murphy).
The third of the three stories (“The Air”) endows Nolan’s film with a more defined sense of objective as we follow Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) in an aerial game of cat-and-mouse with the German Luftwaffe. Here Nolan channels long-established techniques of genre filmmaking, constructing not only the most convincing aerial dogfights ever put to screen but creating a fully immersive experience, from the claustrophobic interiors of the cockpit to the vast skies over the English Channel. The spaces Nolan puts between his English pilots and the Luftwaffe is mostly invisible, invoking in the best possible sense Alfred Hitchock’s famous passage “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
Christopher Nolan’s juggling act here finds a clear balance of immediacy and dimension. His rhythmic precision (and understanding of a greater historical context) effortlessly turns three separate conflicts into a single great one. Nolan has been mastering this mode of storytelling since Inception and has since applied it to The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar. Even more fascinating is exactly how it’s been applied this time around, rather than just employing it in the third act Dunkirk uses it from beginning to end, taking three disjointed stories and forming a single aural, visual and emotional experience.
Where the film regresses is in Nolan’s poor attempts at moral rectitude, righteous stances always sink in any material thriving off of ambivalence. Nevertheless, Nolan more often than not demonstrates a powerful subjectivity in his images. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, creates striking, painterly tableaux comparable in eeriness and nihilism to Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, but Nolan gives these images more texture and grace; the most fully conceived image in the film is that of English soldier Tommy sitting on the beach, now realizing the hopelessness of his situation, watching as desperate English soldiers try and fail to push their rowboat into incoming tides.
In Dunkirk we witness land, sea and air meet in an extravaganza of tragedy and spectacle. But what differentiates Christopher Nolan’s film from this year’s mind-numbing spectacles (which astonishingly Nolan himself is being accused of making) is the rich, ambiguous nature of warfare which resounds across Dunkirk’s three shifting narratives. The set-up here takes three unique perspectives, separated not just by geographical distances–land, sea, air–but differing philosophical, behavioral and moral conditions. The biggest threat posed by Nolan’s near-ludicrous sense ambition is plotty storytelling, bereft of context and dictated by style, but Nolan overcomes that by scaling the geography of his vast and complex battle narrative, the director weaves an exciting, contemplative and lasting image of warfare told from the quiet fringes of the battlefield to its fiery epicenter.