With ‘Dunkirk’, Nolan Traps Us in the Horrors of War, Gives History Perspectives

Dunkirk, aided by plenty point-of-view shots, puts us right in the thick of things and allows its scenes to grow on us and to soak in the settings.

Credit: YouTube

A still from the movie. Credit: YouTube

Christopher Nolan drops us right into the middle of action at the start of his latest, Dunkirk, treating us like fusillades. We see six British soldiers patrolling the streets of Dunkirk, a small French town. Flying pamphlets, containing maps of French coastlines, fall on them, proclaiming, “We surround you. Surrender and Survive!” And right on cue, the bullets start to rain. Five out of the six soldiers die. No words have been exchanged yet. This is death sponsored by war: quick, sudden, silent. The soldier left alive for the time being is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead). As Tommy runs for his life, the scene remains with us, reminding us what happened: five deaths in less than five minutes. But what does that really mean – both the death count and the passage of time? How do you process time in a war that went on for six years? How do you process death count in a war that killed 60 million people?

Numbers, we soon understand, are meaningless on the beaches of Dunkirk, where 400,000 Allied soldiers (French, British, Canadian and Belgian), after being surrounded by the German army, await evacuation. The Dunkirk evacuation, from May 26 to June 4, 1940, took a week to accomplish. These numbers – 400,000 soldiers and seven days – are part of history; Nolan can play no role in them. But he does something fundamental and valuable. He gives history perspectives and dimensions. In Dunkirk, the war is survived, seen and fought from three points of view (land, sea, and air) and three durations of time (seven days, one day, one hour), completely trapping us in its horror, much like the soldiers in, and the civilians approaching Dunkirk. The evacuation also has different participants – veteran fighters, old civilians, young boys – as if the filmmaker is nudging us to occupy a vantage point that suits us the most. But that is a futile aesthetic exercise, because wars, unlike their perpetrators, don’t discriminate.

Unlike Nolan’s previous films, which have often found themselves on the wrong side of exposition (Inception being the most notable example), Dunkirk is remarkably quiet. Here, dialogues or chunks of information don’t drive the film. In the world of Dunkirk, where people are numbers, words have limited potency. As a result, and unsurprisingly, dialogues – the luxury to use language – are largely reserved for those in the position of power. These powers are of different kinds.

They’re organisational. Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), two high ranking officers in Dunkirk, are quite vocal throughout the film.

They’re personal. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a mariner sailing towards Dunkirk on his yacht for the rescue operation, rejects the persuasion of a “shell-shocked” soldier (Cillian Murphy) who wants to return to their homeland. Later, Dawson’s son locks up the soldier, rendering him virtually voiceless.

They’re primal. A gun-toting British soldier suspects a fellow survivor to be a German spy, because he’s unusually “quiet”, ordering him to leave the ship (as it’s filling with water and needs to lose weight).

Dunkirk begins and continues in the same vein how Nolan’s films usually end: the director juggling action in different settings, crosscutting them to accelerate the climax. But Dunkirk, like any bloody war, largely devoid of a three-act structure, plays out like a big climax itself; there are hardly any plot revelations or twists here. In absence of easily accessible information, Dunkirk pulls you closer, commenting on the nature of war. The battle sequences in air, for instance, are quite meaningless from afar. The fighter planes are specks in the sky, and the fighter pilots, wearing a mask, enclosed in glass canopies, are speck-within-a-speck. In such a case, their identities are flags on their aircraft. That is the nature of war: it destroys people in phases, denting their identities. That is the nature of war: it makes people anonymous.

Which is why it’s not surprising that Dunkirk doesn’t have fleshed out characters. (In fact, Murphy’s “shell shocked” soldier doesn’t even have a name; he’s identified as “Shivering Soldier” in the end credits.) This is an audacious move, putting Nolan on precarious ground. Because at one level, it befits the film’s motif, and yet, at the other, it waters down its emotional weight, for cinema derives its true powers from empathy. More so because Nolan’s films, even though largely plot-driven affairs, often have memorable characters. In Dunkirk, though, Nolan doesn’t want you to remember the characters; he wants you to remember the war.

And when people come into picture, they disconcert you deeply. A smart filmmaker always looking to challenge his audience (no matter what the end result), Nolan isn’t as interested in the battle of good vs evil, as he is in good vs good. Shivering Soldier, recently rescued by Dawson, can’t care less about people like him, the soldiers on Dunkirk beach; he wants to return home. And unable to process his trauma, he soon performs a ghastly act, which changes our views toward him or, indeed, our views towards soldiers acting out their worst instincts when cornered by cold brute fear. But it is, in fact, Dawson’s reaction – conveyed with the blink of an eye to his son, as if implying, “understand the horrors of humanity” – that talks directly to our conflicted feelings, making it the finest filmmaking moment in Dunkirk. Small portions, elsewhere, keep underlining the moral bogs of war. Quite early in the film, a senior officer cautions his junior, carrying soldiers on stretchers, to be a little more discerning because, “one stretcher equals seven standing men.” Another scene, similarly, has Allied soldiers fighting among themselves, trying hard to decide which one of them should desert the ship and, ultimately, die. This is mankind in its most fundamental and most barbaric hours.

Watching this scene, it’s hard to not remember a similar moment in The Dark Knight, where Joker offers a choice to civilians and prisoners on two different ferries: Detonate the other, and you’ll survive. There are no Nazis, no villains in Dunkirk (their presence is only signified by bullets and bombs), and, in Nolan’s worldview, it makes perfect sense. Why do we need villains when we’ve each other? Or as Joker said in The Dark Knight, “You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.”

Whether you like his films or not, there’s little denying that Nolan is one of the most important contemporary filmmakers. His last two films though (The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar), in the ambitious ambit of his filmmaking, were lesser efforts; the first was genre-conforming, and the latter fundamentally lacked, among other things, an immersive quality. For someone who’s made such films as Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and Inception, this slip in form was worrying. Dunkirk, however, corrects the flaws of his last two. Beautifully shot by Hoyte van Hoytema, Dunkirk, aided by plenty point-of-view shots, puts us right in the thick of things, and, unlike Interstellar, allows its scenes to grow on us, allows us to soak in the settings. Given that Dunkirk is only 107 minutes long, Nolan and editor Lee Child display remarkable restraint, resisting the urge to cut quickly, imbuing this war drama with a (much-needed) lyrical life-like quality.

But, more importantly, Dunkirk examines the true meaning of victory and loss. The Dunkirk evacuation saved 400,000 lives, but that wasn’t enough for Winston Churchill who, in his speech to the House of Commons, said, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” Consider the soldier who survived the ordeal, escaped death, only to be told that him being alive isn’t enough. Dunkirk challenges the callousness of history. It’s not a naïve worldview: People are numbers only till the dead bodies come home.