There’s a fundamentally volatile, empathically compelling core about Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, more akin to an over-budgeted experiential art film than what might pass as a narrative in the conventional sense, especially in summer blockbusters and their perennial fetish for stories of self-actualization. In Dunkirk, characters are ciphers, stripped of anything resembling backstory. They are defined only by the minutiae of how they react to peril of the moment. Nolan strives not to detail, from above, the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British soldiers after the failed British invasion of German-occupied France during WWII. Instead, he works over-time to feverishly emblazon the past in highly subjective, ground-level cinematic strokes. An experiment in the moment, in an eternal present-tense, Dunkirk is a stark refutation (within blockbuster confines) of the tendentiousness of narrative where moments are primarily valuable for the pay-offs and catharsis they will lead to in a theoretical future.
A scrambling and staggered tale of boots-on-the-ground chaos, ships-in-the-sea pandemonium, and planes-in-the-sky terror, the film plays out in three parts, but also in many moments, which is where its soul lies. Nolan’s aim is to resurrect the filmic style of the astounding agitprop war picture The Battle of Algiers or, more accurately, the opening of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan: an experiment in experience, a work of in-the-trenches, highly personal, thoroughly unprogrammatic feeling emblematized in the raw nerves of sight, sound, and sensations. In fits and starts, Nolan is extraordinarily effective, tracing war not as a personal narrative or an abstract goal toward a particular effect but as a blitzkrieg of furor, impact, and “feel” uncoated by wider justification. The legitimizing impetus of Dunkirk isn’t what war is about, what purpose it serves, or what war means, but what war feels like, what it stirs, what it does to the senses. Nolan’s yardstick is the rumble in the gut, and it is metered out in robust, classical flourishes of pure cinema, shell-shocked editing, nails-in-the-stomach sound design, and a liquid camera that registers the nervousness of docudrama. Nolan has no metaphysical or spiritual ambitions, so he isn’t Malick or Herzog, but he is at least interested in the idea of the body as conduit for meaning.
How colossally exciting it is that I do not have to recap a plot beyond noting that Nolan intercuts between three time-frames: one week in the life of a soldier (played by Fionn Whitehead) trying to escape Dunkirk, one day in the life of a British merchant vessel owner (played by Mark Rylance) saving soldiers off the coast, and one hour in the life of a pilot (played by Tom Hardy) defending the boats huffing it to save the men stranded on the beach and in the water. Dunkirk is likely to receive flack for the hollowness of its characters, but it is hollowness with a purpose. Aiming for the middle-ground between the monumental and the intimate, the characters are indicative of abstract selves – “soldier” , “pilot”, “sailor” – archetypical figures suggestive of identities rather than personalities. They are not supposed to be inlaid with narrative, layered with back-story, not intended to be standouts greater in personal import than random beings, single ants fleeing and fighting in the bedlam. Their essential lack of individuality only rebukes the American Hollywood tradition of narratives that fashion themselves to individuals who seem preternaturally adept at singularly managing the camera, as though they have earned the camera and the film narrative while others around them have not. Nolan’s film, contrarily, implies that another equally viable tale lies just off to the left in every frame. Even more vitally, it reminds us that cinema itself – the panicking fluctuations in the shot pattern, the frightened apprehension in the edits, the sinewy texture of the sound design – has a heart and a soul, and that characters are often only the ancillary and excisable middle-man through which cinema allows us to experience this soul.
But, in all honesty, Nolan is just too much himself to truly pull off his gambit. A serial offender at being unable to animate anything outside of his own meticulous machinations, Nolan is far too coldly rational and intellectual to make art that exceeds his own mental prisons. Too wrapped up in himself, Nolan’s discomfort with the material is obvious because he overplays his hand almost immediately. He seems unable to trust the cumulative effect of his sequences of disarray, so he does what Nolan does: locating the scissors he should have locked in the attic after Inception and Interstellar. And he gets to snipping and gluing his film back together, turning Dunkirk into a Frankensteinian mismanagement of itself composed only of its own body parts. Why Nolan cuts between the three time frames is empirically obvious, or rather, why he might tell us he does it is obvious: to advance a view of war that transcends any one moment or character and, simultaneously, to extinguish the kind of clarity a linear-narrative picture might allow and replace it with an overpowering maelstrom of havoc and commotion that disrupts the passage of time and the contiguity of space itself. This is nothing new in the cinematic world (cinema by its very nature is the disruption of time and space). But it has its place in a film of this subject.
But Nolan has an ulterior motive for playing around with the linearity of his film: namely to fit Dunkirk into his oeuvre by treating his film as another in a long laundry line of lab experiments. As opposed to discombobulating our sense of space and time further, Nolan’s game-plan of mixing and matching the three stories only squares them off by intellectualizing them, coating the film in the dryly academic vibe of Nolan’s other filmic puzzle-boxes. Dunkirk is neither his worst nor his most complicated such contraption, but it might be his most inessential. Or, at least, it is the film that benefits least from and plainly least requires his temporal manipulation, largely because its themes have nothing to do with this distanced, intellectualized notion of time. The individual sequences he directs instill the film with an anecdotal, present-tense, in-the-moment thrush of pure experience. But the macro-flow of his film is colossally distancing, moving us away from the feel of the moment and back into Nolan’s lab, looking at specimens under a microscope and trying to figure out where they go. I’m no big-time Memento fan-boy, but in that film Nolan’s tricks were are least befitting of what was, when all was said and done, a memory-game. In Dunkirk, Nolan’s time games are just a disease that just keeps on giving. Rather than ebbing and flowing with the natural friction of his moments, uncorking a raging current of momentary frissons and experiences, Nolan retains an analytic distance by imposing an extraordinarily formal, stiff form of “chaos” and “non-linearity” that is more affectation than natural outgrowth of the material. Throughout, he is ostensibly offering moments to other characters, other perspectives not our or his own, but he is still ultimately a filmmaker of only his own, an artist lost in his own head.
Nolan’s film has been making the rounds for its devout commitment to celluloid, its analog prowess in a digital age, which suggests Nolan’s pretensions as much as his classical craft. Nolan fancies himself a classicist, an enthusiast of the essentials and the canon who practices what he preaches. (One can see Powell and Pressburger’s imprint at various moments in Dunkirk). But his championing of celluloid also speaks somewhat to the cult of personality around which he has encircled himself, making it more a marketing tactic than a true test of his cinematic mettle. Even though he uses aspects of his celluloid image well – namely the rich three-dimensionality and texture-density that a digital aesthetic would mostly flatten out – he abandons others, namely the fluidity of color that digital also tends to flatten out. This tension, this mismatch, is indicative of Dunkirk as a whole. Ultimately, it is a peculiar paradox of the coldly intellectual and the fiercely euphoric, and the solution is entirely heterogeneous. It is positively brimming with lightning bolts of sheer cinematic vitality and alacrity, but it can’t help but evoke the robotic, unfeeling disposition of digital cinema, celluloid or not.