Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s Primal Cry Against Modern Expectations

Christopher Nolan uses Dunkirk to challenge both himself and audiences about what they expect... and out of more than just movies.

The opening moments of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk begin neither on a beach nor at sea. The movie about the greatest naval evacuation in history prefers to start on a street as a handful of young men, some English and some French (not that we can tell the difference), walk down a pleasant city avenue, on edge and unhappy about something. The audience cannot see what vexes them, as there is no single shot of the Germans (or “the enemy” as the characters exclusively say) for the whole film.

Still there is something intangibly off, even before the pamphlets from passing planes descend like pitiful, inadequate snow… or the bullets fly like a sudden, shrieking roll of thunder. And every bolt is landing terrifyingly nearby. It’s a thrilling, nerve-shattering sound when the first gun is fired, and the sequence builds on that shocking moment of invisible violence for what is essentially the rest of the movie. It’s as if we are witnessing a tautly wound violin string being methodically pulled for 106 minutes. And it all begins with that minimalist opening which, despite running at close to 15 minutes, features not a single line of dialogue.

It is that kind of approach to the visceral storytelling in Dunkirk that marks it on several fronts as one of Nolan’s most precise and challenging of cinematic exercises—one that looks to test himself just as well as any audience. How much can he move away from modern expectations for storytelling, both visually and narratively, while working on a grandly epic canvas? Because even with a pricy studio tentpole budget and the best spectacle you’ll see all year, this is shockingly intimate. And despite its very title in which the writer-director suggests a sweeping vista overlooking one of the most important battles of the 20th century, the film is often claustrophobic, personal, and defiantly obscure.

It is, in fact, defiant of the very way Hollywood has come to make movies, and of the way audiences now expect to receive them. It’s a primal countermeasure from an auteur who wishes to protect the sanctity of the theatrical experience in the days of Netflix, Hulu, and shared cinematic universes. This isn’t a franchise and it isn’t about selling; it’s a visceral vocalization of the nightmarishness of war. And Nolan finds that voice without anything in the way of exposition or the kind of handholding detractors have long accused him of pursuing.

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It is a remarkable achievement from a singular filmmaker about dealing with something we’ve lost… and just not in the movie house, either.

Characters are Not Products

Increasingly in the modern Hollywood landscape, medium-budgeted movies—like the kind Nolan used as a stepping stone between Memento and Batman Begins—are going the way of the dinosaurs. Filmmakers now are often given the choice of conforming to the demands of astronomically priced franchised necessities, or they continue to toil away in the not-so-lucrative realm of diminishing independent budgets.

Nolan is a bit of a paradox in this environment since he was never quite the indie director who became the overnight point-man for a superhero franchise, and he was never truly forced to conform to strict “universe-building” guidelines. This is mostly because Nolan was allowed to make up his own rules for a Batman universe in what became The Dark Knight Trilogy. It gave him the freedom to craft something decidedly more cinematic and classical in its storytelling aspirations than what is now the defining model for the industry at Marvel Studios.

It is also what allowed Nolan to end his Batman movies, definitively, with his title character’s own personal arc. The idea of studios allowing filmmakers such autonomy appears ludicrous a scant five years later. For while Nolan viewed superhero mythology as a rich storytelling opportunity, the industry as a whole has seen something far more commercial in its implications.

Now as opposed to trying to build exciting stories for their biggest films, the industry is desperate for characters whom fans already adore, and will show up again and again, so long as the characters are still adorable. The homogenization of cinema as content, and movies as IP product, began well before The Avengers made “shared universes” a buzzy Tinseltown phrase, but it certainly accelerated the drive with giddy vigor. And as we trip over “Dark Universes,” “Monster Verses,” and “Transformer Verses,” it’s clear this has expanded well past comics. In a summer like this one, it’s ubiquitous.

Protagonists are not defined by their obstacles or challenges, but by how gratifying audiences find the need to see them again and again, ad infinitum. There is not an exhaustion of genre or franchise, but merely a perpetual give-and-take between studio and actor about how long they can keep the good times rolling.

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Ironically, as a filmmaker who is perhaps more associated with the modern craze of “reboots” and masked altruism, Nolan has used his clout to take blockbuster budgets and mainstream moviemaking in a wholly different universe. None of the characters in Dunkirk have any backstory. Nor or they distinguished by characteristics that make them instantly identifiable or beguiling to the viewer.

Nolan strips away all artifice of pretense about these young men who appear almost indistinguishable at the height of war. Character arcs are dismissed, as is the need for any person to justify to an unseen lens their goodness… or their lack of it. Rather, characters are defined by the events that occur to them, and anything learned is simply in how they endure it.

The filmmaker trusts that seeing Fionn Whitehead’s character yearn to get home will be enough to steal your breath when all that stands in his way from a boat is a hole in a plank of wood, or later the planes and U-Boats that could sink him. Even his character’s name, “Tommy,” is a misnomer. As the nickname (coined by the Germans) for British soldiers in both the First and Second World War, “Tommy” indicates our protagonist is the everyman. He is unburdened by the need of self-justification, and the film he is in thus takes the bold stance of asking audiences to invest based merely on seeing his humanity and his despair in the face of dizzying horror.

It defies the very idea of mass-serialization in our media where stories become perfunctory or irrelevant, so long as the characters who occupy the “episodes” are enjoyable. Nolan is dispensing with his characters even being generally discernable; the film as a whole is about experiencing the embrace of war’s madness. And even then, that doesn’t mean at all that it’s plot-driven.

Plot Does Not Define Story

Another crucial aspect that separates Dunkirk from anything now in theaters, or even from most other war movies, is its total indifference to overarching narrative mechanics. There is not a single scene of generals in an office or war room discussing the strategy, nor do we actually come to understand the magnitude of the event by traditional narrative techniques.

As is familiar to previous Nolan form, the film is divided into a nonlinear narrative of three subplots: by land in which we spend a week with Tommy; by sea when we spend a day trailing Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson on a small yacht drifting into war across the English Channel; and by air as we endure a single hour in majestic skyward combat with RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy).

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The mere contrasts of time—a week, a day, and an hour—emphasizes the scale of this narrative, but each story is told with minimal plotting or setup. We follow characters in the midst of epic events, and how they in turn muddle through on a micro level.

The rather daring choices give the film a mosaic-like quality, in that each element zeroes in on details so miniscule that they could choke you if you drink too deeply from the experience, particularly as the water begins to pour into sinking ships, or as German bombs land mere feet away, upending sand and chunks of human flesh alike. It’s also the antithesis of one of the chief critiques against Nolan: namely that he can rely too heavily (or lazily) on exposition and plot.

There is no exposition other than when Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) relays the ever direr context of their situation. But these few omissions give audiences just the widest understanding of how cutoff the 400,000 Allied forces are in Dunkirk after the Battle of France. It matters almost not at all to the quiet, patriotic self-assurance that Rylance’s Dawson carries within himself as he moves his boat across the sea. Nor does the big picture matter all that much to the shell shocked and fragile state of Cillian Murphy’s unnamed soldier.

As with the characters, these choices defy audience expectation of a clear three-act structure, or in a narrative that builds to a clear climax. This pushes back against more than the codification of modern blockbusters. It’s honestly a case of Nolan challenging his own classicalist impulses by ignoring traditional cinematic rules. It also is jarring when contrasted to war movies about other battles, like The Longest Day or the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, where the stakes of every choice are made abundantly clear, and ensures audiences understand the finite logic of every decision.

If anything, this style is vaguely reminiscent to 1970s cinema when former documentarians like William Friedkin were allowed to build a world in understated naturalism, be it one in which crooked cops rule the New York streets in The French Connection or wherein demonic possession is just a fact of life, as in The Exorcist. It also faintly echoes one of Nolan’s greatest influences, Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick also made his fair share of war films, none of which are like Dunkirk. But he always valued a minimalist approach to characterization and narrative. Letting events breathe and unfold in a way some might find cold or distant, perhaps deservedly so.

And yet, I do not think Nolan is reaching toward unsettling discomfort, but rather shaking audiences into an acute awareness.

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Recalling a Forgotten Kind of Tension

In a recent interview with Playboy, Christopher Nolan was asked what terrifies him. Recalling what might be his most debated film, the director pointed toward The Dark Knight Rises, and the anxiety that we’ve somehow forgotten just how fragile (and breakable) our social institutions are.

“We were making great progress in the world,” Nolan said. “Things were going well. We had two generations of prosperity, didn’t have direct experience of war. I’m very frightened that this leads people to not remember how wrong things can go in this world.” He even seemed to chuckle that “a lot more people than there were a year ago are as afraid of that as I am now.”

With Dunkirk, Nolan is reaching toward reinvigorating what “things going wrong” looks like, and with nary a superhero cape in sight. For Dunkirk’s tension comes not from viewing the Second World War as a battle of good and evil, or moral superiority righting wrongs. It is about how we must react to the moment the veil drops, and a complete lack of control over events becomes manifest. In short, how war is an experience unto itself when all else fails.

The battle and subsequent evacuation of Dunkirk is one of the most important moments in world history from the last century. The Allies suffered a crushing loss against the Nazis; before the movie starts everything has already fallen apart and moral certainty has been shattered.

This is gleaned simply in the character played by Cillian Murphy, a soldier whom Rylance’s Dawson finds as the sole survivor of a sunken submarine lost somewhere between the waterways of Britain and France. As seen in the trailers, he is less than eager to return to Dunkirk, because it doesn’t matter what you’re supposed to do, what matters is in the here and now. Everything else appears negotiable after defeat, and thus the unspoken heroism of a weekend pleasure crusier continuing to sail for Dunkirk is more profound.

Often World War II films wish to underscore the nobility and sacrifice of the Greatest Generation. Eight brave souls grappling with—but ultimately agreeing to—potentially sacrificing their lives to bring a boy home to his mother; a pacifist who wishes to help save as many lives as he can on a Japanese held ridge; Mrs. Miniver kindly understanding why her husband without a moment’s hesitation has answered the call to go to Dunkirk with their boat and not ever once glancing back.

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The tension of Dunkirk is rife with emotion, but the kind earned in people simply by surviving and in doing the right thing in the face of confusion and hopelessness. The film quietly nods toward an unspoken virtue while in a landscape overcast by an unseen, omnipresent “enemy.”

Nolan uses his tricks as a filmmaker to emphasize these ambitions by cutting it so all three “narratives” converge in fascinating ways. Hardy’s Farrier has a particularly stunning number of sequences as the aerial dog fights are shot in dizzying 65mm IMAX with camera angles so wide that they can induce actual vertigo. And like so many of the stunts, including at sea and on the land, it is done in the camera without any CGI, as far as I can tell.

Yet every decision the RAF pilot makes in the Spitfire plane isn’t out of heroism—it’s out of selfless efficiency where he can go beyond the call when the need arises, and does something that createsa  true sense of stinging gallantry without actually denoting it.

Dunkirk is a riveting exercise where Nolan is challenging everything you might expect from the subject matter: be it in terms of narrative, plot structure, or even the basic notions placed on war films in general, and World War II movies in the main.

This is a film aimed to shake audiences out of apathy with awe, stunning them into accepting an uncompromising vision of how cinematic experiences can be, and suggesting there are many ways to view the horrors of war. And that goes deeper than IMAX.