Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson /In his paradoxically granular war epic Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan assumes viewers know that the British Army’s 1940 strategic retreat from the eponymous French coastal town was crucial to Allied victory in World War II, minimizing narrative exposition and personal back-story and thrusting the audience straight into onslaught, survival, and endeavor. Nolan employs three perspectives of different actual (though roughly equal screen) duration, developed in alternating sequences: “The Mole,” referring to a jetty constituting Dunkirk harbor’s breakwater, where troops wait agonizingly to be rescued for a week, under intermittent Nazi attack; “The Sea,” – the English Channel – which a small boat crosses in a day; and “The Air” over Dunkirk in which Royal Air Force pilots engage more numerous German fighters and dive bombers for an hour to protect the soldiers. These overlaid strands evoke at once the complexity and the immediacy of war.
“Operation Dynamo” involved some 700 private boats – the “little ships” – helping to evacuate over 300,000 outflanked British and French troops stranded in Dunkirk so they could fight the Germans another day. The movie version is likewise an ensemble effort with no star turns. Nolan doesn’t even succumb to the acute temptation of showcasing Winston Churchill’s “miracle of deliverance” speech, instead channeling it through a private who reads the words aloud from the paper after reaching friendly shores. Still, Mark Rylance as Dawson, the intense skipper of a small boat; Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton, the grimly unflappable Royal Navy pier master; and Tom Hardy as Farrier, a laconically confident Spitfire pilot, give finely gauged, signature performances.
Nolan fully exploits contemporary cinematic tools to vivify collective wartime struggle and valor in the moment. He captures, for instance, the claustrophobic horror of troops sheltered in a trawler taking fire that pierces the hull and sinks the boat, the cruel irony that the downing of a German plane still causes an oil fire on the water’s surface that boils British soldiers to death, and the cool sacrifice in the last airborne RAF pilot’s insistence on fighting until he runs out of fuel and glides lyrically from the scene. For all the film’s gritty immersion, though, Nolan distills a few triumphant old-school images, like Bolton’s bloodshot eyes tearing up when the little ships emerge on the horizon and the evacuees’ cheering the pilot. Even if these moments were apocryphal, they would have been earned.
At the end of the movie, that pilot, Farrian, improbably lands his plane safely on the now-empty beach, gets out, and casually fires a flare into the cockpit to deny the craft to the enemy. He squares his shoulders and raises his head as vaguely rendered Germans detain him, a prisoner of war. His face, finally seen without an oxygen mask, wears a faint smirk of defiance. It’s that attitude that will, per Churchill, “outlive the menace of tyranny” and “never surrender.” National unity, pride, and leadership make Dunkirk literal escapism for Americans as well as Brits, but of a noble and purposeful kind.
Dunkirk, 2017, written, co-produced (with Emma Thomas) and directed by Christopher Nolan. Syncopy Films Inc.
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