You never see the Germans.
Nearly every 70mm frame of Christopher Nolan’s monumental new film is lodged in the heart of the heart of World War II — ticking down the seconds as the Nazis tighten the noose around 400,000 Allied troops who are stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk — but you never see the Germans. Their submarines lurk invisibly beneath the waters offshore, their planes swoop in the distance overhead, and their foot soldiers remain off-camera as they amass on the other side of the dunes and wait for the order to attack.
On the rare occasions when the Axis fighters make themselves known (as they do in the haunted and startling prologue), their bullets whistle towards us like the wind, materializing from nowhere and visible only for the destruction they leave behind. Out of sight, however, is most definitely not out of mind. On the contrary, Nolan makes it impossible to think about anything else. His unshakeable account of Britain’s darkest hour — and the miraculous dawn that followed — dissolves Hitler’s army into a primarily existential threat. The opening text refers to them as just “the enemy.” They are as vague and violent as the dream projections in “Inception,” less of a literal force than a deadly abstraction that lives under our skin, feeds on our fears, and erodes our shared purpose.
In other words, they are the perfect antagonists for a PG-13 war epic, their absence allowing this story of panic and isolation to celebrate Britain’s past while also condemning its Brexit-era present. They are the galvanizing force behind a cinematic oxymoron, a virtually bloodless but profoundly unnerving assault on the senses. Cleaving closer to Sartre than Spielberg, “Dunkirk” is a stunning work of raw spectacle that searches for order in the midst of chaos. It’s the most contradictory film that Christopher Nolan has ever made, and — not incidentally — also the best.
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Modern cinema’s most dedicated rationalist, Nolan has made a (staggeringly successful) career by applying Spock logic to Kirk premises. “Interstellar” attempted to solve the nature of love for its Darwinian purpose. “Inception” imposed rigid systems upon the realm of raw imagination, dissecting the human subconscious with a safecracker’s precision. “The Dark Knight Trilogy” is a triptych of superhero movies that redefined the genre by denying its natural inclination towards fantasy.
War is banal. War is madness. War offers no reason behind who lives and who dies. Of course Christopher Nolan needed to try and figure out how it works (in hindsight, it’s kind of shocking that he waited this long). With “Dunkirk,” the über-popular director has crafted yet another blunt force exercise that uses ALL-CAPS film language to confuse the borders between time and space, deconstructing the physical world in order to explore the immaterial forces that make it tick. A historical blockbuster may seem like a bold change of pace for him, especially one that runs a tight 106 minutes and doesn’t include a single male character who’s trying to forgive himself for failing his dead wife, but this is still the stuff of vintage Nolan. It’s still the work of someone who’s part watchmaker and part showman, someone who disassembles each of his stories for the thrill of putting them back together (in a sense, all of his films are “Prestige” pictures).
“Dunkirk” naturally consists of three parts, each of which belongs to its own timeline and terrain. The film is evenly split across land, sea, and air — the young draftees who spend a week stranded on the beach, the civilian sailors who brave a day on the waters in order to rescue them, and the volunteer RAF pilots who dart out of the clouds and provide cover fire at the eleventh hour of the great escape. Needless to say, the evacuation was a very different experience for all involved, but the screenplay’s boldest stroke is how it equalizes them into one by cutting between these separate fronts as though they’re all happening simultaneously.
A teenage kid named Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead, whose wide-eyed performance channels Christian Bale in “Empire of the Sun”) barely makes it to the shore with his life intact — rejoining the rest of the troops, he spots a fellow Brit (Aneurin Barnard) and the two boys wordlessly agree that their only hope for survival is to earn passage aboard the hospital ship that’s about to set sail for England, so close but so far away. Eventually, they’re joined by a hard-edged infantryman played with great urgency by pop star Harry Styles, Nolan jumbling unknowns together with mega-celebrities in order to stress the egalitarian nature of being left to die. Combat experience isn’t required to appreciate how everyone fights their own war, how the grunts who got mowed down on Normandy Beach had as much to live for as the generals who sent them to the slaughter. Accordingly, “Dunkirk” doesn’t judge these lads for their desperation, nor for the lengths to which it takes them. In fact, his film is enormously forgiving when it comes to the fevers of war, empathetic towards self-protection even as it celebrates the virtues of solidarity.
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