This review contains mild spoilers of plot elements in Dunkirk. Read at your own discretion.
To call Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk a war movie would be misleading; then again, it may be somewhat misleading to call it anything else.
The film, which depicts the British troop evacuation from the French coastal city of Dunkirk during the early years of the Second World War, steers clear of most of the ideas that have come to define war films. Instead of telling a war story exploring notions of brotherhood, or even moral ambiguity, Nolan chooses to return to the individualist themes of his earlier films, examining the nature of a handful of characters sprinkled across land, sky, and sea.
Dunkirk is not one story, but three, intercut over the course of the film's hour and a half runtime: we watch as a group of young soldiers attempts to escape the beaches, as two RAF pilots defend the retreating army from the skies, and as a small boat manned by three civilians joins in the naval evacuation. As the storylines advance, broader exposition tying the plots together is presented via Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), who supervise the evacuation from the pier.
While Dunkirk’s three perspectives converge by the end of the film, each is tonally distinct and warrants individual examination. The first narrative (titled The Mole) follows three privates, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Alex (Harry Styles), and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) as they try to find their way across the Channel, to Britain and safety. Nolan’s portrayal of rank-and-file troops is uniquely cold in its approach; most of the young soldiers seem to care little about anything but their own survival for a vast majority of the film. While Tommy and Gibson express some semblance of morality when they escort a wounded soldier to safety, and later during a high-stakes confrontation with Alex, they are essentially alone in their ethics; Dunkirk portrays the common soldiers as frighteningly (and quite reasonably) desperate to escape, at any cost. Nolan’s Hobbesian predispositions are most visible in this third of the movie, which, in essence, depicts adolescent men acting in callous self-interest while simultaneously attempting to rationalize their barbaric choices.
The second perspective of the film (titled The Sea) is a less cynical, even ostensibly humanist tale centering around Dawson (Mark Rylance), a virtuous seaman, his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their young deckhand George (Barry Keoghan). The trio sets off towards Dunkirk aboard a modest skiff, responding to a call for private vessels to help rescue the stranded soldiers. Rylance’s Dawson is a mild but persistent man, and when he rescues a visibly shaken soldier (Cillian Murphy) from the water, he ignores the man’s pleas to turn back. Although Dawson’s altruism is certainly different from the soldiers’ drive for survival, his determination to push onward across the Channel proves to be rooted in individual desire rather than any sort of collective consensus – when Peter questions the prudence of continuing forward, Dawson rejects the qualms of both his son and the soldier, and carries on towards Dunkirk.
The film’s third perspective (titled The Air) is the most reserved of the three stories. It follows Farrier (Tom Hardy), an RAF fighter pilot, as he and his brother-in-arms Collins (Jack Lowden) shoot down Luftwaffe planes over the English Channel in a visually breathtaking display of aerial cinematography. Farrier’s story is far simpler than Tommy’s and Dawson’s; most of his dialogue is technical communication with Collins. Perhaps the only genuine display of selfless sacrifice in Dunkirk is Farrier’s dedication to staying in the sky, defending the fleeing British soldiers and civilian ships even as his plane’s fuel steadily drops. Nolan’s minimalist characterization of Farrier ultimately makes the pilot seem both more complex and more real than either Tommy or Dawson: his silence could be a simple matter of introversion, perhaps, but it could also be something significantly profound – the modest heroism that Tommy and Gibson struggle to achieve, or maybe the quiet nobility that Dawson nearly embodies. In Nolan’s oeuvre, populated by self-obsessed superheroes and hyper-competitive magicians, a character such as Farrier is a welcome rarity.
It’s hardly a spoiler to say that the film ends with the successful evacuation of hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the beaches of France; that much is a matter of historical record. The truly cathartic moments of Dunkirk come in these now-storied moments, as Nolan unites the three plotlines along the shore and sea: The surviving privates, filthy and soaked, are hoisted by Dawson onto his boat, as Farrier’s plane soars over Commander Bolton and the last of the evacuating men on the beach. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema save the most ambitious visual marvels for these last minutes of the film, which explode with a color and contrast rarely seen in Nolan’s works.
Dunkirk is perhaps not a war movie, but it’s certainly a Christopher Nolan movie, and it contains much of what has made his films so beautiful and often so disappointing in the past. However, unlike Nolan’s murkier and more fervently egoist works, the film shows a singularity of purpose and a shift towards nuanced and self-aware filmmaking. While Dunkirk is at times mired down by its director’s somewhat simplistic view of human nature, its moments of clarity make it a film that stands out as a distinct and unconventional portrayal of virtue and conflict in wartime.