It is only July, but the arrival of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk already has us thinking about next year’s Academy Awards. At a time when theaters are crowded with superhero epics for teenage fanboys, Nolan gives us a film for adults – a wartime history lesson as well as a textbook example of masterful direction and screenwriting.
It is hard to fathom, but the man who created Memento, Inception and the Dark Knight Batman trilogy has never been Oscar-nominated for his direction. Regardless of what is still to come in the next five months, that egregious oversight is bound to be corrected with Dunkirk.
Without the visceral violence of a Saving Private Ryan – Nolan seems more focused on the apprehension of warfare, rather than the actual combat – Dunkirk is on a par with Steven Spielberg’s World War II saga. Pointedly, the London-born Nolan opts to tell a very British story, set in 1940, long before the United States ever entered the war. It is a pivotal moment in the war, when some 400,000 Allied troops – British, Belgian and French – are stranded in Northern France, on the beaches of Dunkirk, pinned down by German forces.
Not that we see much of the Germans, but in the terror-filled eyes of the young British soldiers, we can sense the imminent threat they represent. The brilliance of Nolan’s screenplay is how he divides the battle into three fronts – land, sea and air – each in its own time and space, yet intercut to approximate simultaneity.
There are the young draftees on land, waiting to be evacuated, personified by teenager Tommy (a Nolan discovery, Fionn Whitehead, whose terror registers expressively on his face). There are the civilian yachtsmen who sail across the Channel into harm’s way out of sheer patriotic duty, represented by a Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, pure understated cool demeanor) and his son. And most cinematically, there are the RAF Spitfire pilots, like the barely recognizable and almost wordless Tom Hardy, locked in dogfights with the Luftwaffe enemy.
Despite making what is essentially three films in one, Nolan pares Dunkirk down to a tight 106 minutes, his second-shortest feature film, perhaps an acknowledgement of the bloat of Interstellar’s 169 minutes.
The film is virtually bloodless, but death hovers throughout it. There is the horror of being trapped alive, either in a sinking ship or in the cockpit of a submerged airplane cockpit.
History buffs will know the outcome of the multi-pronged effort to evacuate the Allied troops at Dunkirk, but that does not make the viewing experience any less harrowing. And if you are expecting unalloyed uplift at the film’s conclusion, you are not familiar enough with the Nolan canon.