Christopher Nolan has been known primarily for his cerebral thrillers, but in Dunkirk, he deploys his technical virtuosity to create an utterly emotional experience.
Dunkirk stages one of the most desperate periods in Britain’s fight against Nazi Germany, when 400,000 Allied soldiers were surrounded by German forces on the northern beaches of France in the spring of 1940. With many of its warships unable to navigate the shallow waters, the British government launched Operation Dynamo, requisitioning over 700 civilian boats to ferry soldiers across the Channel. These became known as the Little Ships of Dunkirk, twelve of which were actually used in the production of Nolan’s film.
Nolan recounts the astounding Dunkirk evacuation from three tightly-interwoven vantage points: on land, at sea, and in the air. We feel just how precariously the fates of the soldiers on the beach depend upon the arrival of the civilian boats and the ability of the Royal Air Force to take out the German bombers. Had the rescue mission failed, Britain likely would have capitulated, making Dunkirk one of the most monumental events in the history of the Second World War. The rescue of more than 300,000 soldiers far exceeded the government’s expectations for the evacuation, prompting Churchill to soberly remind the nation that Dunkirk was not a victory, but a miracle of deliverance. This is captured in the film’s climax, as the three arenas of battle converge in a single seismic instant.
Dunkirk is the arguably the most immersive war film ever made, its camerawork tossing us into the maelstrom of the evacuation. For the sequences in and around the bombed warships, Nolan had cameramen floating next to the soldiers as they scrambled for survival around the wreck. He placed IMAX cameras in the cockpits of the planes, allowing him to obtain underwater footage of RAF pilot Collins (Jack Lowden) nearly drowning inside his sunken aircraft. Nolan even practiced flying in one of the British spitfires in order to accurately recreate the dogfight scenes from the pilot’s perspective.
Nolan, however, repeatedly intercuts these point-of- view shots with extreme long shots that diminish the soldiers to the size and vulnerability of stranded chess pieces – soon to be swept away and annihilated by the looming onslaught of the German forces. This alternation in perspective is unnerving and multiplies the film’s emotional impact; it sensitizes us to the soldiers, only to show us how dispensable the war has made them in the grander scheme of things. The intensity and dread are simultaneously ratcheted up through the sound of a ticking pocket watch that was built into the film score by Hans Zimmer – a reminder of the evacuation’s inevitable race against time.
The different time spans in which the dramas unfold – a week on land, a day on sea, an hour in the air – are a precise temporal reimagining of how the mission would have unfolded. The British planes ran on an hour of fuel, the civilian fleet could cross the channel in about a day, and the 300,000 soldiers stranded on the beaches were evacuated in a little over a week. Nolan’s Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), the owner of one of Operation Dynamo’s requisitioned yachts, was inspired by the story of a 66-year- old former Titanic officer, Charles Lightoller, who sailed his own boat, The Sundowner, to Dunkirk and rescued 130 Allied soldiers. Farrier (Tom Hardy) is also based on a real-life RAF pilot, Alan Christopher Deere, who crash-landed on the beaches of Dunkirk and set his aircraft ablaze. This final image is one of defiance despite the military defeat, resonating with Churchill’s words following the evacuation: “We shall never surrender.”
It is perhaps ironic that Nolan’s war epic is his shortest film to date – coming to only half the length of his usual scripts. But it is undoubtedly his most impactful. This time, Nolan’s experimental bent as a film director has had a profound emotional pay-off. Dunkirk’s immersive IMAX camera and interlocking narratives of civilians and soldiers fighting for each other’s lives under imminent siege has made audiences internalize war with an intensity that is hard-hitting and bone-deep. One veteran – only 20 at the time he was helping the Royal Navy evacuate soldiers from Dunkirk – said after watching the film: “It was like I was there again. Tonight I cried because it’s never the end. We the human species are so intelligent, and we do such astonishing things . . . but we still do stupid things. When I saw the film tonight, I saw it with a certain kind of sadness. Because what happened back in 1940, it’s not the end.” War still goes on – in all corners of the globe. When we watch Nolan’s film, we must not forget that.