Following the release of Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg said that “every war movie, good or bad, is an antiwar movie;” a pleasant sentiment, but one I’ve got to disagree with. While it’s rare to find a non-propaganda movie that is explicitly pro-war, most movies depicting war suffer from a dissonance between narrative and viewing experience. No matter how much the war is narrativised as horrific and gruesome and pointless and so on and so forth, the depiction of the war itself lends a glory to the whole procedure.
Maybe because most of modern cinematic language was developed in between the two World Wars, war itself is almost inherently cinematic, and moreover, cinematically humanistic. Even when we recognize war to be a bad thing in a movie, there’s still that visceral draw and attractive purpose to warfare. The explosions, the shaking ground, the running on beaches, and pulling of triggers pulls you into the now of the moment unlike almost anything else on film. War in film may be a nasty thing, but it’s almost always necessary. War is a proving ground for a movie’s protagonists; it’s where they become heroes, it where they stand on their principals and defend their world from evil.
And that war has such a formal kinship with cinema might be why it took a master formalist like Christopher Nolan to make a war film that makes the best case for Spielberg’s quote yet. The war in Dunkirk is solely a place to escape from. There is no glory to be found in dying for your fellow man on these beaches, no heroism to be won by refusing to retreat. There is only survival, only waiting to the chance to go home defeated and hopefully not too broken by the experience.
The movie is made of three perspectives on the “miracle of Dunkirk,” where the British navy, with help from civilian vessels, was able to rescue over 300,000 allied soldiers from Dunkirk after the Germans surrounded them following the Battle of France. The first perspective is of the soldiers on the beaches, waiting one week for evacuation while being picked off by German infantry and Luftwaffe. The second is a day from a civilian pleasure-yacht crossing the channel and into a war-zone to rescue their boys. The third is an hour in the Royal Airforce with a Spitfire pilot risking it all to keep his comrades safe from the looming Luftwaffe. The three perspectives are woven together, each linear along its own plot, but emphasizing a distortion of time when cutting between the others until they converge on and over the beaches of Dunkirk.
The week on the beach is our first and primary plot, following a soldier (Fionn Whitehead) as he does his best to board a ship back to England. He’s one of literally hundreds of thousands of soldiers on the beach, many of them young and dark-haired like himself, and you’re going to really have to pay attention to get this one’s name. Despite wanting the same thing as every other soul on the beach, as we follow his attempts to get his place on a ship, there are times that he comes across a jerk for wanting it. He teams up with another soldier to carry a stretcher onto a ship, hoping to get aboard because they’re helping a wounded countryman. And when that doesn’t work, and the ship that they wanted to get on is bombed by the enemy, he stealthily dips himself into the water as if his were on the bombed ship in order to share in the sympathy of those who were, and given priority when the next one arrives. “Why does he deserve to cut the queue?” you might ask yourself, as if you wouldn’t do the same.
Among the stories, this soldier’s is the most harrowing. Besides just the struggle to get onto a ship, we suffer with him as he’s bombed, shot at, drowned, cold, wet, starving, and tired. He’s a boy trapped on a beach and a series of tin cans on the wrong side of a war and wanting nothing more than to get home. Though he’s surrounded, there are no Germans for him to shoot at, no victory to strive for. There’s no point for him to continue fighting for anything more than survival.
Our day on the water with the citizen captain (Mark Rylance), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney), and his son’s friend (Barry Keoghan) is calmer, but no less dangerous. As they sail into the war, they are made constantly aware of the threat they’re running towards as the Luftwaffe circle overhead, and they pass by warships ten times their size fleeing in the opposite direction. They have their conviction and a hardy supply of life-jackets, but not much else. And when they take aboard a lone soldier (Cillian Murphy) they notice standing on one of those ships as it sinks beneath the waves, he becomes yet another obstacle as he (understandably) does not want to go back to Dunkirk.
Finally, the hour in the air with the Spitfires is the most visceral. We start with three pilots on their way to cover the extraction from the Luftwaffe, but only one of them (Tom Hardy) even makes it far enough to see the beaches. Alone and unsure of how much fuel he has left, he still does his best to dogfight any Germans out of the air, each as anonymous in their planes to him as he is in his to the thousands of people he’s risking his life for. His plot is probably the most familiar to other war films, and the most likely to come off as formally pro-war – the lone ace protecting the rest of the military – but not to the degree of so many other War movies tend to glorify their soldiers.
Running just over 100 minutes, Dunkirk is Nolan’s shortest film, and easily his tightest. The film is a stunning example of the screenwriting adage that you should start a scene one minute into the action and end a minute before it’s resolved; starting after the Battle of France was already lost, and ending before many of the better known stories of World War II (mostly involving the Americans) have a chance to begin. And given that the movie is split between its three plots, Dunkirk feels a lot like its entirely third act. All the set-up is done with three sentences of text before the title-card, leaving the rest of the movie to be a ticking-clock climax.
Dunkirk also has the strongest cinematography and direction of Nolan’s filmography so far, as he brings us into the crowds of soldiers packed onto the beaches and under the water as they tryto escape from sinking ships; and into the cockpit of a dog-fighting Spitfire outmaneuvering it’s foes. Combined with a sound-mix that gives every bullet fired an echoing ring and solid thud and makes every bomb dropped sound like it lands inches from your ears; it may also be the most visceral war film ever shot – which definitely helps establish it as one of the best examples of formal anti-war-ness in the medium. Dunkirk makes it impossible to establish a scenario in its narrative that could possibly end with glory, one that isn’t filled with fear of an invisible but ever-present enemy and the hundreds of ways that they could impersonally end your life. And because of that, Dunkirk may have finally succeeded where so many other war movies have failed by making a movie where war is cinematic, yes, but more importantly, inhumanistic.