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Surviving Dunkirk

When I first saw Titanic, I thought, “I’d have enjoyed this so much more if the movie hadn’t disrupted its powerful depiction of the sinking ship with an unremarkable melodrama about young lovers.” The director’s attention to the jaw-dropping details of how the ship came apart became a powerful parable about ambition corrupted by hubris, and an unsettling portrayal of how quickly the “civilized” turn barbaric when threatened.

Thanks to Christopher NolanI’ve finally seen an equivalent of the movie I’d imagined.

Wait, no — let me revise that claim. Dunkirk feels less like a ship-focused Titanic and more like what we would have seen if a ship-focused Titanic had been made, had been successful, and had inspired sequels that kept on heightening the number of simultaneous calamities. Dunkirk is like Titanic 5 — in which several Titanics hit the same iceberg at the same time… and then are attacked by enemy warplanes and warships, while passengers flee through the corridors of the sinking ships, pursued by German soldiers with rifles.

Sound like your kind of movie? If you’re one of Nolan’s tribe, then you’ve blown past anticipation already; you’ve seen the film two or three times already, and you’re celebrating another victory for your hero. The barrage of rave reviews I’ve read have been as bone-rattling as any German air raid.

Nolan is a singular presence in this era of large-scale filmmaking. He’s all about “shock-and-awe” spectacle, and yet, unlike Michael Bay and Peter Jackson, he’s keen on jolting our senses and our intellects. His high-testosterone leads are as compelling as any giants of modern mythology, and yet they are not god-like superheroes — they are unconventionally complicated and conflicted, exposing the contradictions inherent in our Western idols.

Nevertheless, from the pell-mell pace of Memento, to the furious clash of egomaniacal magicians in The Prestige, through the heavy hardware and heavier moral quandaries of his Dark Knight trilogy, and into the far-reaching ambitions of the mind-bending Inception and cosmic Interstellar, Nolan has inspired what may be the most enthusiastically loyal fanbase at the movies: a host that often seem inclined toward a sort of hyper-masculine hostility if their hero’s integrity is questioned. Read some of their raves, and you’ll quickly recognize a dominant tone: that he is a master beyond criticism.

Dunkirk probably won’t change that. The movie lives up to the hype. No doubt about it — the roar of Dunkirk will leave your ears ringing, your heart racing, and your fingernails bitten down to the quick.

And it does so by immersing audiences in a claustrophobic’s nightmare.

You probably know the basics of the historical account. If you want the movie to surprise you about that, skip this paragraph: A cross-section of Allied forces – Brits, Belgians, Canadians, French — were herded like sheep by wolves until they were surrounded on the beaches of Dunkirk, France. There, they were easy targets for the German soldiers pressing in by land and by air: 400,000 men, trying to stay alive through wave after wave of deadly assaults, from May 26 through June 04, 1940, until civilians were mobilized to speed their boats across dangerous waters to evacuate the survivors.

I’ve read admiring praise for how Nolan foregoes traditional narrative, eschewing character backstories, and avoiding conventional character arcs. But that’s not entirely true: He just trims his storylines down to the merest threads, acquainting us with the key characters with impressive efficiency. That way, our primary experience is a vicarious experience of disorientation, panic, and desperation. Things move too fast for us to fall into the comforting familiarity of formulaic war stories.

Nolan’s not interested in creating heroes through Herculean feats of bravado. (I’ll mention the cast later — this isn’t a movie about star power. The lead actors are meant to blend in with the mad mass of desperate men — just everyday soldiers and civilians, not to rise up like UK stand-ins for John Wayne or Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson.) He’s not interested in setting up villains for spectacular defeats. (In fact, we don’t meet the enemy face-to-face here. It’s easy to forget that they’re Nazis; they might as well be the forces of natural disasters, sending tsunamis and tornadoes and volcanic eruptions down on a vulnerable village.) Nolan’s interested, instead in exposing, at one extreme, the deafening madness of war that tends to send soldiers home in ruins, and, at the other, the awe-inspiring inner strength that can inspire men to empathize in the midst of conflict, and risk their lives for others — even strangers, even foreigners. 

That’s what makes Dunkirk such a fascinating document. It is more intense than anything Nolan’s made before (which will please his thrill-seeking audiences), and yet it also does more to undermine, and then redefine, the idea of the Western hero than anything Nolan’s made before (which may cause war-movie enthusiasts to feel like they didn’t get quite what they paid for). Here, if the soldiers have guns, the guns seem like little more than baggage to carry. Here, if they launch a clever scheme, it’s upset just as it gets started, or it falls apart in disagreements between desperate men.

Does that add up to this film being “Nolan’s masterpiece,” a claim I have heard from several accomplished critics?

That’s a question that nobody can answer conclusively. Your position on that will have much to do with what you go into the cinemas hoping to find.

Me, I tend to admire Nolan’s smaller, quieter, more contemplative films more than those that seem to equate exhausting the audience with serving them. (The film’s blaring score is so relentlessly overbearing that I was tempted to hold up a sign in protest: “ZIMMER DOWN, HANS.”) While Dunkirk is a historical recreation that, like Paul Greengrass’s United 93, rattled my nerves as if trying to traumatize me, it didn’t move me in more than a couple of fleeting moments. And in its relentless pile-up of crises — between which it constantly shifts to maximize prolonged suspense — it actually pushed me away into watchful detachment rather than drawing me into a suspension of disbelief.

One twist in particular, which comes fairly early, subjects a brave young soul to a life-threatening injury. It is meant to be alarming and ironic. Instead, it felt clumsy, abrupt, and entirely unconvincing.

I’m also sympathetic to what Sam Van Hallgren, producer of the stellar film podcast Filmspotting, jotted down in his notes at Letterboxd. He wrote that the film’s scale seemed “at once huge and yet still too small. It never felt to me like there were 400,000 thousand men on that beach. I’d believe maybe 5,000?” He also found the film’s climactic show of courage and honor strangely insufficient; surely the real rescue efforts must have required much more than we see here.

Whatever the case — I’ve already been informed that I am wrong, that I’m blind to the towering genius of Nolan’s talent, that this is one of the greatest war films ever made. Every moviegoer is entitled to their opinions, of course. My responsibility is to describe what didn’t work for me, but praise what is well done.

And there is much to praise here:

  • the approximation of war’s discombobulating chaos, in editing, in non-linear storytelling, in sound and fury;
  • the recreation of a war without a hint of digital animation — the seamless and virtuosic lifelikeness;
  • the conclusion, which refuses sentimentality, and recalls the deep ironies and sadness of Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun.  

And, of course, the performances, precisely for their unglamorousness — for the way big stars consent to sink into characters that would not stand out as superhuman. Tom Hardy is something of an exception, in that he’s given the film’s most conventionally heroic turn, and yet he doesn’t strike iconic poses or speak quotable lines: he’s just a severe and attentive gaze, the rest of him cloaked in pilot’s leather. It’s a combination of his performance in Locke, where he spent the whole movie behind the wheel of a car, and his turn as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, where he had a mask on the whole time; he accomplishes so much with so little.

Also impressive, Mark Rylance, somehow finding the secret to making tender-heartedness look like strength; Cillian Murphy, as a shell-shocked survivor doomed to live in nightmares; Kenneth Branagh, in an uncharacteristically understated turn; and Fionn Whitehead, who gets the most screen time, and who plays the perfect ball bearing, steered and thrown and trapped and controlled by forces beyond a soldier’s control.

By the way — if you ever hear anybody say that soldiers who get captured or retreat are “losers,” make them sit and watch Dunkirk ten times without a break. This is a film that comes not from men’s idealistic imaginations about war, but about the grievous burden of having experienced what war really is. I can’t help but think of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Watership Down’s Richard Adams, whose fantasy epics are distinguished by the sense of mournfulness that keeps battle-scenes from ever feeling fun, from ever looking like an attractive way to live. Dunkirk tells the truth with an appropriate burden of grief.

I might also note that for me, a man who has been blessed with freedom from any call to war, the emotional experience of this film is the best approximation I know for what it feels like to love my country in 2017, and to wake up every morning to find wealthy superpowers recklessly tearing down the fundamental engines of democracy and human decency. I know that’s not what Nolan intended, but as I watch soldiers running back and forth, ducking and dodging each new horror, I sat there saying “Yes. This is what it feels like.”

Ultimately, though, the film’s greatest truth comes in glimpses of cooperation between individuals and nations, decisions to suffer and serve together, decisions to fulfill the responsibilities of one’s position with integrity, decisions to show brotherly and neighborly love.

So, no — I don’t call Dunkirk a favorite, much less a masterpiece. It’s high on noise, chaos, and anxiety, and low on the visual poetry that is, for this moviegoer anyway, cinema’s highest art. Nevertheless, it provides a necessary corrective to the dangerous machismo of most war films, celebrating heroes as those whose concerns have more to do with cooperation than individual glory, with the common good over superhero distinction. I’m glad it’s out there. Especially now.

 

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Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet

Novelist and critic Jeffrey Overstreet teaches writing (Seattle Pacific University) and film studies (Northwest University and Houston Baptist University). He's written a memoir of moviegoing and faith (Through a Screen Darkly, Baker, 2007) and a fantasy series that begins with Auralia's Colors (The Auralia Thread, Random House, 2007-11). He's worked since 2001 as a film critic and columnist at Christianity Today, and he's been a regular contributor to Image, Paste, and Christ & Pop Culture. His writing has been recognized by The New Yorker and The Seattle Times. He regularly speaks at universities, conferences, and churches in the U.S. and abroad. Want to invite him to teach or speak? Email joverstreet@gmail.com.