Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a World War II movie unlike any you’ve ever seen before. It is at once bold and visceral, letting you watch the unfolding of one of the most famous events of World War II in a way that has never been attempted before. The film is, as Nolan has suggested, as much of a “survival movie” or a “suspense movie” as it is a war movie. And that’s just the beginning for understanding how “Dunkirk” has captured movie audiences.
One secret to Nolan’s remarkable new World War II film is what it doesn’t contain: lots of CGI battle scenes or special effects. That’s especially surprising since the entire premise of “Dunkirk” – the evacuation of over 330,000 soldiers on an Allied beach – would seem to lend itself to cinematic CGI effects.
And yet, what we have is much tighter and much more restrained in scope. There is very little in the way of epic battles – bombs keep going off in the distance, and Royal Air Force fighter planes try to keep the skies clear of German Luftwaffe planes, but in the course of the entire film, we never see a single German soldier. The brooding presence of an enemy trying to annihilate a vast fighting force is there for the entire film, but the absence of an direct representation of “The Other” is what makes this film so powerful.
In fact, Nolan has specifically spoken out on why he didn’t want to rely on CGI to capture the epic scale of events – he wanted the whole epic sweep of history to feel very real, almost as if you were experiencing it yourself. As a result, Nolan has relied on a number of other cinematic effects to capture the sweeping trajectory of history. Camera angles are specifically crafted to capture all the fears of the soldiers encamped on the beach, and the pacing of the camera work evokes all the claustrophobia the men must have been feeling as the German forces closed in on them.
Most war films have several central characters who emerge as heroes. Audiences are swept along as they embrace the unmatched heroism of what is being attempted against an implacable foe. But Nolan’s “Dunkirk” takes the opposite approach – he uses an ensemble cast in a way that there is no real hero of this film. Instead, the hero of this film is the everyman. Case in point – Mark Rylance plays a civilian who uses his small yacht to help evacuate the men from the beach. That is the type of film to expect – a war film in which a civilian plays a starring role.
And there’s more that Nolan offers audiences. Take Cillian Murphy, for example. He’s a leading Hollywood star, but in this film, his role is simply described as “shivering soldier.” Tom Hardy is another Hollywood star who has worked with Nolan on a Batman film, but here, he is a rather nondescript Allied fighter pilot who plays a rather limited role in the film. When we do see him, he’s behind a jet fighter mask.
In short, Nolan works hard to create a sense of anonymity of these heroes. We know they are out there performing heroic deeds, but we do not know their names. The goal is to make us appreciate the epic sweep of history. There are those who argue that “Great Men” (always capitalized!) appear from time to time, bending history to their will. But the reality is that history is like a vast, multi-cellular organism, in which a single man is no more important than any other man.
As if to prove this point, Nolan pares down the storytelling considerably. We do not see the decision-making of the generals behind enemy lines. We do not see the politicians back home, exhorting their vast populations to support the war effort. No, these “Great Men” (the kinds that the history books always include) seemingly play no role at all. Their greatness is only a function of the individual struggle for survival of a giant, anonymous mass of soldiers, all hoping for only a single thing: to return home.
In the history books, war seems to follow a linear narrative. It is easy to trace out all the pincer movements, attacks, and counterattacks; as a result, one can always see who is “winning.” But Nolan dispenses with that logic. It is impossible to see who is “winning” until someone finally surrenders. The notion that the Germans had pushed the Allied forces all the way to the beaches of Dunkirk was surely proof that the Hitler-led forces were unstoppable, right? At that instant in time, it was clear that the Germans were winning. But that ignored what was to happen next on the beaches of Dunkirk.
And, so, one of Nolan’s goals is to play with our sense of time. There are several subplots within “Dunkirk,” and all of them play out over different time periods. One subplot plays over the course of a week, one plays out over a 24-hour period, and one plays out during a single hour.
And that’s what helps to create the complexity of war. When you are focused only on your daily survival, the epic sweep of history fades into the background. When survival is the only goal, the ability to evacuate more than 330,000 soldiers from a beach in France is a win of the highest magnitude. Getting the soldiers home was the only concern.
It’s no wonder Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” has captured audiences. It is, simply, an extraordinary war movie in which the real heroism of men is captured not by how many enemy combatants they kill, but rather, by how many of their own men they are able to save. The movie, for being a war film, is remarkably free of bloodshed.
As some movie critics have suggested, this is a film that deserves to be seen and argued about – it is the type of “war film” that we always wanted Hollywood to create. It is a story of everyday men doing their best to survive and to return home. It just so happens that these events took place during wartime.