Most of director Christopher Nolan’s films fall fairly neatly into the genres their marketing campaigns sold them as. His three Batman movies are superhero movies through-and-through, “Inception” and “Interstellar” are science-fiction, “The Prestige” and “Memento” are thrillers, and so on. “Dunkirk” was more or less sold as a war film. It’s certainly set during a war. But it’s a film where the enemy is literally never properly seen, either out of frame or far out of focus, it’s a film with next to no blood and virtually no combat.
There is no viscera. It’s not so much a film of fighting, of combat, of what the word “war” conjures up as a film about suspense, tension, the passage of time. Hans Zimmer’s score mingles with the sound effects so much that the nearly ever-present sound of a ticking watch becomes an inescapable part of the setting instead of just a non-diagetic cue.
Being Australian and therefore familiar with the Gallipoli Campaign, the concept of a military defeat not being framed solely as a negative but also positioned as a galvanising force for a nation, a method through which to push the idea of humanistic and moral superiority and victory, is not alien to me. But a “war film” being about an inarguable military defeat is another way the film doesn’t really neatly fit into that category. It’s a film set in a war and thus it is a “war film”, but the connotations of that, that it’s about combat and victory and characters, don’t hold true to the film itself. The way the film places community unity and action above individual heroics or even distinct individual characters also feels reminiscent of tall poppy syndrome, another big part of Australian culture, in a way, but here it’s more a case of Nolan attempting to give the viewer as visceral experience of the events at Dunkirk as he can, as opposed to presenting a conventional film story about them.
This sort of approach is jarringly different than Nolan’s typical way of filmmaking, in a welcome way. Rather than enormous amounts of clunky exposition that often threaten to sink the magic he managed to conjure up in his films, there’s barely any dialogue at all. Rather than pointedly making big thematic statements, the film focuses far more on in-the-moment attempts to survive. There’s little in the way of character arcs. Nolan abandoning so many strictures of conventional filmmaking frees his skills as a filmmaker up – gone are hackneyed backstories, gone are the endless widower protagonists, gone is the usage of brilliant actors to cover up stilted and robotic dialogue. The film’s lack of characterisation is one of its greatest strengths, as it abandons trying to map out character arcs mechanically and instead commits to the reality of a moment, present emotion instead of over-plotted cycles. The moments the film regresses to speeches and moralising are its wobbliest, but they are few and far between.
With so much of Nolan’s typical style stripped away, it’s interesting to look at what remains. Of all things, his love of puzzlebox narrative structures carries through, but here it serves a very clear purpose unified with the vision of the film, rather than just being an attempt to spin a “cool twist” or memorable plot. The mingling of the film’s three timelines (a week with infantry mostly on land, a day with sailors on the sea, an hour with pilots in the air) conveys all the key aspects of the event – the suspense, the tension, the fear, the hopelessness, the maddening paradoxes of being so close yet so far, the temptations to give in, how stress brings out the ugliest sides of human nature, and so on – in a way much more powerful and immediate than a more linear structure could have. The men of land, sea, and air all experienced the same event, but in different amounts of time. Mingling them makes for a very holistic depiction of the event, and the editing of the three interweaving narratives represents a step forward in Nolan’s typical trailer-like emulation of Malick’s way of blending flashbacks and present footage in a way that makes more emotional and thematic sense than logical, as the editing is so precise and seamless that it never feels jarring or like a gimmick. Nolan has always been fascinated by the passage of time, but this is his first film since “Memento” that actually justifies his tinkering with how the passage of time is deployed in his stories.
Apart from the non-linear structure, other Nolan mainstays that carry through are his usage of water as a conduit for fear (the bathtub kick of “Inception”, the water tanks of “The Prestige”, the wave planet of “Interstellar”, the two boats of “The Dark Knight” and the tenuous ice lakes in his other two Batman movies, and so on), and his love of ambitious, practical filmmaking, here most impressively deployed in the spitfire sequences, but also carrying through the film’s general approach of putting the audience in the physical reality of the situation as much as possible. Even some of Nolan’s more bizarre quirks, like the way he drowns out dialogue with music and sound effects, feel like they serve actual story purpose here, putting the viewer in the mindset of the overwhelmed soldiers who could barely hear anything (whereas Michael Caine’s near-unintelligible speech around midway through “Interstellar” had no such clear reason to be drowned out by music).
“Dunkirk” in many ways feels like Nolan liberated from genre, free to explore his pet themes and techniques in a context without any in-built constraints. The fact that his first film based on actual unalterable history is his most free suits the paradoxes of the Dunkirk evacuation very neatly. I give it four and a half spitfires, and a destroyer.