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REVIEW: With Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan has finally made his masterpiece

William Mullally

Published: Updated:

It’s hard for a filmmaker to wander into the yard sale of World War II stories so long after it has opened—so much of the good stuff is gone. But sitting there, all along, has been Dunkirk. One might wonder why such a brilliant piece is still there collecting dust and dew. Upon closer inspection, it’s easy to see why. The price tag is outrageous. The build is all wrong for what most people are looking for—a giant towering mass, that doesn’t provide the traditional battle scenes or big victory that most are looking for. So while many must have lingered on it long before Christopher Nolan arrived, no one had the will, or the ability, to finally take it home.

The UK knows of Dunkirk, but not everyone else might. So what happened at Dunkirk, exactly? The gist is this—in 1940, before the tides turned against the Germans, before the US joined the war, hundreds of thousands of British and French troops were surrounded by the German forces, backed into a corner, desperately searching for a way to escape, to retreat back to England, to be able to fight another day. If they fell, Germany likely would have won the war. It’s one of those strange moments in history where the fate of the world seemingly rests on what happens to a bunch of kids on a beach somewhere.

If you’re not a history expert, that’s fine, me neither. This movie doesn’t expect you to be, nor does it try to turn you into one. The opening of the film purposefully tells you very little. Because why should it? While there are important men out there smoking cigars and putting pins on maps, while there is an enemy encroaching with one of history’s most nefarious agendas, what does that really matter to the boys on this beach? To them, all they know is the Germans are coming to get them, and if they don’t get off this beach soon, they’ll lose their lives before they’ve even had a chance to live them.

The price tag

Let’s get back to that price tag. Nolan knew to tell this story, he had to make it big. And much like we’ve seen in his previous big budget epics, he gets to film the scenes that filmmakers dream of. Planes chasing after planes in an empty sky. Giant military ships with men lined up from one side to the other, seemingly for miles. A huge beach, a flaming sea, a cast of hundreds of thousands. As zoomed in as we are on this one event on this one beach, everything feels expansive, realer than real, epic in the original sense, as if Grendel will be coming for Beowulf on these very sands.

But the lives, what of those? Since he went from a small-budget promising filmmaker to The Man with the Blank Check, Nolan has struggled to make his characters feel as full realized as the worlds he’s put them in. Sure, he’ll draw plenty, it just never works as it should. We’ve seen the cast-of-thousands city-wide epics like in Dark Knight Rises, but that one had an entire police force stay in the sewers for an entire year—they didn’t ring true at all. In his other blockbusters, he’s often zoomed in on a select few lives and given them back stories, but as deep down as he tried to make them, they were still difficult to feel for. It’s hard to buy the love that Jack Dawson had for Edith Piaf (or whatever their names were) in Inception, or to be anything but made uncomfortable by the endless tears that Science-Wooderson cried for his ‘beloved’ children in Interstellar. So who does Nolan give us this time?

On the beach, we mainly spend our time with three of the boys—Alex, Tommy, Gibson. So what are their stories? Does Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) carry around a love letter of the girl he’s going to marry on the other side of the English Channel? Does Alex (Harry Styles) have a twin brother he’s kept a secret all this time? If they do, we never find out—all that matters here is the situation they’re in, and how they respond to it. There’s 400,000 men on that beach. On the other side of the water, the men running the war have stated that they aim to get 40,000 back. The odds of survival are not in their favor. What will they do now?

We should have known how good Nolan would be once he concentrated in on people in so simple a context, once he left the backstory to your imagination. After all, that was where he shined so well early in his career, not on trying to encapsulate the whole of someone’s life, but just putting them in a situation and asking simple questions about how they handle it and what they might do next. It’s that same feeling he gave us back in Memento, when we woke up with a man with no memory, and only some tattoos and Polaroids to guide his next move.

We open with Tommy, running for his life, trying to find some water to drink, a place to relieve himself. He finds Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) burying a dead English soldier, putting on his uniform in haste. The two of them don’t speak, unconsciously uniting on their quest for survival, trying to find a way off. When one ship sinks before it ever takes off, the two save Alex from drowning, who joins them, none speaking a word.

Not much needs to be said, it just needs to be seen. Dunkirk finds most of its tension in little pockets of visual suspense—whether Tommy will manage to grab the arm of Alex before he’s crushed between the boat and the pier, whether Gibson will swim out of the boat before he drowns, whether the pilot will get the canopy to open in time before he his plane sinks too far down and he drowns.

We follow three main stories that are told at different paces—we cover a week’s time on the beach, but a day’s time on the sea, and an hour’s in the air. On the sea, we follow a civilian’s boat, as a middle-aged man, played with his usual understated pathos by Mark Rylance, his son, and a boy from their small town in England embark across the Channel to go bring back as many soldiers as they can. In the sky, we follow three pilots try to keep the air clear to provide safe passage for those below.

Time flows differently in each story, and the movement allows us to meet characters at different points, sometimes seeing how someone turned out before we see how they got there, other times seeing the same event event from a completely different perspective than we’d seen it the first time. When you’re as trapped in the moment as these characters are, all you have is your own perspective, and the reality, and the truth, of the situation plays out differently for each of them, something each one is hardly aware of.

Dunkirk doesn’t have to explain much. All it has to give you is moments to zoom in on, people to follow, and that’s enough to immerse you, to make you understand, and you will. The film never shows you the Germans, the film never says the word ‘Nazi’, but it doesn’t have to. Because either you know the story, or you can understand it as a more fundamental force, coming for you, waiting for you to put your guard down.

This is the story of Dunkirk as it was lived. In all its horrors, in all its miracles, in its selfish grabs for survival, in its selfless acts of bravery. This movie was not made to explain a war that we’ve all heard too much about. It’s the stuff of life itself, told by a filmmaker who had enough patience to wait until he was ready to tell it. And he was, he really was. This is one of those films where you know you’ve seen someone hit another undiscovered peak of what film can accomplish.

- Dunkirk is in theaters 27 July -