Roundtable: Dunkirk (2017)

Something new? Something different? How does Dunkirk fit into Nolan’s oeuvre?

Aren: Are we witnessing a new type of Christopher Nolan film here? Running under two hours, with minimal dialogue, no fantastical plot elements, relatively-still cinematography, long periods of quiet and patience, Dunkirk is very different than Inception or The Dark Knight films.

Anton: You’re right. There are some obvious and notable differences. I’d also say there are some important similarities. Let’s start, though, with what makes Dunkirk unique in Nolan’s body of work.

Clocking in at 106 minutes, Dunkirk is Nolan’s shortest movie since his feature debut, Following (1998).

Dunkirk operates almost like a silent movie, an interplay of images and music. While complex visuals, particularly through editing, often convey vital information in Nolan’s films, Dunkirk is almost entirely devoid of exposition through dialogue, which is a vital component of all of his previous films. He’s even been criticized for his reliance on expository dialogue, unfairly in my view.

Dunkirk is not a superhero movie or a work of science fiction. Insomnia is also set in the real world, as is Memento (although you could argue that Leonard's memory loss is a bit far-fetched).

I think the shift in pace, the slowing down, puts Dunkirk on one end of Nolan’s films, with the Batman movies, especially The Dark Knight Rises, on the opposite end, the fast end. Interstellar started to use more still shots. The change in pace might also be due to the influence of his new cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema.

Am I missing anything?

Aren: Well...

Anton: Oh yeah, the obvious: Dunkirk is based on historical fact, although it’s somewhat loose with the specifics as well as the geography. (I’ll leave the fact-checking for those ardent literalists who police such matters.)

But even though Dunkirk is a new kind of movie for Nolan in many respects, there are also many stock Nolan elements.

I’d say the most important of these is Nolan’s continued interest in playing with temporalities. In Dunkirk, we get titles which signal these—“The Mole: One Week, The Sea: One Day, and The Air: One Hour”—but, I’m embarrassed to say, their exact meaning was initially lost on me. I didn’t catch right away that this indicated the different time frames. I thought it might be distance from England at first, or something else. There’s also been some confusion about “The Mole,” which, correct me if I’m wrong, doesn’t refer to a mole on the main boy’s face (Fionn Whitehead), but rather the long pier on the beach.

Anders: Did someone actually think that was what “The Mole” referred to? Even if one is initially confused by the term, it’s repeated later in the film by Branagh’s commander with clear reference to the pier. Also, does Fionn Whitehead really have any such a large mole that it would make sense to be referring to him?

Anton: I didn’t actually think it referred to his mole, but, yes, one critic did.

Anders:Dunkirk is not some radical departure from Nolan’s earlier films, but rather a sharpening, a paring down of his style to highlight some of his key interests as a filmmaker. I believe that the three-layered temporal structure and the way that Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema use the IMAX camera to capture the overwhelming nature of the situations on screen make this more of a piece with his earlier films than not. Additionally, we have the narrative elements of self-sacrifice and the “noble lie,” which surface near the end of the film. So, as far as I’m concerned, Dunkirk, aside from its genre difference, fits very nicely into Nolan’s oeuvre. Here he makes a historical film and manages to make it a puzzle film, not unlike his first two films, Following and Memento.

Anton: I somewhat disagree. I don’t thinks it’s a puzzle film, in that, the point isn’t to try to solve it. Whether we entirely understand the timelines, and whether we pick up on their correct relation, does not define our experience of the film. In fact, he seems to be suggesting that the overlapping timelines derive significance from their mixing and overlapping, rather than meaning being derived from their resolution, their reordering into a chronological narrative in our minds.

In other words, I think the film is puzzling, but not really a puzzle movie. The “puzzle” is the chaos of war, and it can’t really ever be solved.

Anders: Sure, but likewise I think the “puzzle” aspects of Nolan’s earlier films are about more than “solving” them as well. Nonetheless, Dunkirk is much more elegant in doling out the information that a viewer needs than most of Nolan’s other films. The use of the pamphlets dropped by the Germans on the town at the beginning, with the map showing the Allied troops surrounded, sets up the stakes of the situation perfectly. Nothing more is needed. Granted, in this situation Nolan is dealing with an historic event that British people and most educated Westerners will have heard of, so some of the pressure is off. It’s not as difficult to get your head around as the premise of something like Inception.

Aren: Yeah, imagine if Inception just dropped you into the dream worlds without any actual explanation. I’m sure some artsy film critics would’ve loved that, as they could’ve compared it to actual dreamscape filmmaking like Lynch, but it’d make no sense for the film. Nolan uses exposition when it’s needed. An historical event like the evacuation of Dunkirk is a lot easier to parse than dream-sharing or interstellar travel.

I agree that Nolan is still building on ideas and structures he has played with in the past. But there is something different about Interstellar and now Dunkirk compared to his earlier films. I think a big part of it is the emotional dimension. Nolan is often lambasted as Stanley Kubrick-lite, an emotionless filmmaker who admires form and structure more than character and emotion. But Interstellar is an almost-corny meditation on metaphysical love and Dunkirk is an overwhelmingly-emotional look at defeat and sacrifice.

Anton: Yes, Nolan’s more interested in emotion these days, which for me also indicates why this isn’t a puzzle movie, a movie that first engages the intellect. And for what’s it’s worth, I’d say that Kubrick was more interested in character and emotion than most film buffs credit him. Cold, rational Nolan, like cold, rational Kubrick, is only partly true.  

Aren: Definitely, but even if the popular conception is only partly true, you still have to address it as it affects how a large portion of filmgoers approach his work. Misconceptions become a part of the narrative when we’re talking about public figures, but I digress.

Anton: Agreed. Something definitely to address. Like all clichés, they are partially true.

Aren: I also think Nolan is starting to wear his emotions on his sleeve more with his filmmaking, and that a cinematographer like Hoyte van Hoytema captures this better than someone like Wally Pfister, who seems more utilitarian in his compositions. It’s not like Nolan has never focused more on shooting his characters than his environments, but he has never been more interested in the faces of human beings than in these two films. Interstellar is essentially an ode to the power of Matthew McConaughey’s face and Dunkirk is a film about conveying emotion through eyes.

Anton: And I give credit to the cast, particularly Whitehead, for their acting, for their faces. He conveys a lot with little dialogue.

Aren: If there’s a unifying close-up throughout the film, it’s one of a man searching beyond the frame for something beyond his view. The camera will focus on eyes looking off frame, trying to spot the enemy, but also searching for home, just beyond the fog on the horizon. Eyes are the windows to the soul and Nolan is more fascinated in depicting them than ever before. This is an IMAX film so he often has wide-shot compositions of lots of men or boats in the ocean, but he will shoot a man’s face in enormous close-up as well, silently contemplating his fears and his courage. When we get Tom Hardy’s face and his piercing blue eyes in 16 metres-high IMAX compositions, it’s striking.

Anton: Hardy does a great job conveying the character with mostly just his eyes. Branagh also does a fine job, particularly during the climax, when he wells up with tears a bit.  

Form and Narrative

Anders: One of the things I really liked about Dunkirk was how it remains engaging and moving throughout, without resorting to the kinds of narrative conventions that most war movies utilize to connect the audience to the characters. Nolan here trusts his audience enough to feel invested in the situation without having to tell us about a character’s backstory, like providing them a sweetheart back home that they have to get back to. Once again, this is partly an effect of the genre of the WWII film—the stakes of the war are ingrained enough in both cinematic and Western history to make it matter to people without “making it personal”—which frees Nolan to experiment in other areas. It’s a deft and clever use of genre. Rather than belabour the narrative, Nolan takes the audience’s “comfort” with one set of conventions in order to risk experimentation in other areas: namely, the staggered “temporalities” of the plot.

Anton: To extrapolate for a moment, I would say that you’ve provided a good example of one of my favourite aspects of Nolan: he both respects his audiences and consistently seeks to challenge them, to make them work a bit. He’s neither a panderer nor a provocateur, which makes him, in my opinion, the consummate crafter of intelligent blockbusters today.

Anders: There’s a thrill in figuring out how the different pieces fit together, such as when we see the Spitfires fly over the boats near the beginning and then again later when Mark Rylance’s Dawson points the planes out and names them.

Anton: I’ll give you that, Anders, in terms of the puzzle film. There is a pleasure fitting the film’s narrative together. I remember feeling happy when I finally understood why it was dark in one storyline and evening in another.

Anders: It never feels forced, but rather you begin to feel all the pieces drawing together. I’m trying to figure out a metaphor for the narrative structure. It’s like several pieces of string all tied at one end and laid out on a surface, and then as the film progresses and the narratives converge, it’s like picking them up from their anchor point and seeing how the different lengths measure up and yet come together at the end. I think it’s elegant and rather risky, to be honest. That he was allowed to do this in a major Hollywood summer release is a testament to the faith Warner Bros. has in him.

At the same time, this staggered approach to narrative temporality means that in certain situations the viewer is ahead of the characters with regard to what will happen: a kind of dramatic irony running throughout. Of course, this reflects the viewer’s actual historical advantage over the characters. We know how the evacuation of Dunkirk will end, and the war as well.

Aren: That’s a good point on the historical advantage the audience holds over the characters and how the timeline of the film reflects that advantage. We know how the war resolves. But that perspective doesn’t allow us to know whether these individuals survive this particular defeat, so the greater perspective doesn’t detract from dramatic tension in the moment. Since defeat has already occurred prior to the film’s start and rescue for the army itself is also assured by the film’s end, we are left in a limbo space where we can limit our focus to individuals and see how the foregone conclusion of the greater scenario affects these individuals in the moment. It kind of deftly solves a possible lack of dramatic tension and conflict in a narrative where the outcome is already resolved for the viewer.

A different kind of war movie

Anton: At this point, I think we can all agree: Dunkirk is a different kind of war movie. It’s experimental.

The film opens brilliantly. In the title cards, we just read about “The Enemy.” I think this is great, because it plays into the film’s avoidance of being a history lesson, and being more elemental in its approach to the important historical event.

And the enemy is kept unseen for most of the movie. In the brilliant opening scene we just see the soldiers running from Germans who are always off camera. And we hear (excruciatingly loud) gunfire, which makes that opening scene terribly menacing.

The film also involves the elemental play of land, sea, and air, the three realms of modern warfare. The Mole is not only a pier but also suggests moles, the earth animal, and a fairly vulnerable one if exposed to boot.

Aren: This also plays on the Churchill quote used at the end of the film, the famous one about British tenacity in the face of crippling defeat: “We will shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air...we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds.” It’s the three modes of British defiance in the face of defeat, and the continued and combined efforts of the British Army, Navy, and Air Force to combat the enemy and win out in the end.

Anton: You also might say this is more of a tale of survival than war. It’s not a conventional war movie, although elements of war movie combat come up in the dog fights. Other viewers have called it more of a thriller.

Anders: While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the film is not a war film, it is definitely  interested in different aspects of war than most films in the genre. It is a surprisingly somber film—here Nolan’s oft-derided lack of humour is perfectly appropriate. But it’s not without uplift. I didn’t leave hating humanity, even if it still didn’t make me want to go to war. So, if there’s a way that Nolan has shifted his interests in his last two films (this and Interstellar) I think it’s in moving away from the kind of Nietzschean nihilism/existentialism that can be identified in films like The Dark Knight or Inception into a fuller expression of humanism. Dunkirk is humanistic, even as it is harrowing at times.

Aren: I think this plays into my comments earlier, where I mentioned his increasing formal focus on the faces of his characters. Nolan is still interested in puzzles and narrative structure and invention, but I think he’s tying those interests more directly to the characters in his works. This started in Inception in many ways, and is finding even greater focus in Interstellar and now Dunkirk. Nolan believes in human dignity and the capacity to stay human in the face of overwhelming circumstances. Which is part of what I think makes Dunkirk so powerful.

This film is clear-eyed about the greater perspective of the war and the British defeat and the strategic importance of rescuing the army, but it also has genuine interest in the individual characters, from Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy, who hopes to escape the beach, to Tom Hardy’s Farrier, who sacrifices himself for the good of the soldiers on the beach, and Barry Keoghan’s George, who dies trying to do his part and achieves some small measure of heroism purely through his intentions, even if he is never given the chance to perform any meaningful actions. And I want to briefly mention how sympathetically Nolan portrays PTSD here. Cillian Murphy is chilling as the disturbed officer they find stranded at sea, but even Aneurin Barnard as the silent Gibson, who is revealed to be an escaping French soldier, is quietly devastating and treated with enormous sympathy.

Anders: One could mention something about the length here. Rather than make a super long film that gruelingly punishes the audience to make its point about war, Dunkirk is focused, shorter, and relies on the actual effects of each moment to make its point. I said on Twitter that it’s common to praise a film for not overstaying its welcome, but here it’s not so much that but that Nolan understands how the film might become unbearable at greater length. Yet, it’s still PG-13!

Aren: I think any criticism of PG-13 here is silly. The film captures brutality and war without glorifying the physical violence of it. I think the approach does a good job of straddling that line between an anti-war narrative and the kind of glorification of warfare that movies usually revel in.

See it in IMAX: Nolan’s use of format

Anton: I have to give Nolan credit for making non-3D event movies. He often says he wants to justify the price of admission, and I give him credit. You never feel fleeced for cash. He consistently delivers a film experience worthy paying money for, and makes sure it’s big and loud.

Aren: Oh yeah. I pity the people who don’t have access to seeing it in IMAX. It’s overwhelming and instantly a much richer experience for having been seen in an immersive setting. Some of those images of the beach overhead look like views from an airplane. It’s cliche to say this in the era of “immersive cinema” and 3D, but I did feel like I was actually in the film at moments, experiencing a total sensory load of what was portrayed in the film. Which, for a story like this, is intense!

Anders: It certainly is loud. I can’t actually think of a louder movie. You hear those Rolls-Royce engines for sure. I saw this in digital IMAX (sadly not 70MM), and it stuns. The folks I saw the movie with said they had to actually cover their ears.

Aren: Just wait for the inevitable lawsuit over damaged eardrums or something to that stupid effect. But yes, so very loud.

Anders: The other way that the film fits into the “event film” category is in its cast. It’s a huge cast of contemporary British stars, not unlike a film like The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far. Big names like Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, and pop star Harry Styles, draw our recognition and make it feel like an event. Yet, casting competent unknowns like Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Tom Glynn-Carney in key roles keeps us focused on the film itself.

Anton: And I think is becoming one of the film events of the summer, particularly in Britain.

Andes: In the end, I liked Dunkirk more than I expected to, even as a Nolan fan. I think it’s mostly because I was afraid this was going to be some kind of bid for “respectability” and awards with Nolan tackling the war genre. Instead, he uses the genre to further his interests in questions of time, precision, and the meaning that we give to the events that define our lives. In this case though, it is the meaning that Dunkirk has for Great Britain. At the end of the film, it feels like a defeat to the main characters, but both Churchill’s speech and the moments of recognition the characters get—George’s memorialization, the bottles of beer passed through the train window—remind the viewer that in the end, one’s own subjective understanding of a situation is not the be-all and end-all. In this manner, Dunkirk is Nolan extending themes from his previous films to the communal experience.

Aren: So where would you rank it alongside his other films? For me, it’s in the top half, for sure. I think repeated viewings will only enrichen it, but at this point, I’ve come to think most of his films are masterful to some extent. Even Following and Insomnia are fascinating. TheDark Knight films will always be the ones I’m most fond of because of my affection for Batman, but films like Inception, The Prestige, and even Interstellar, are ones I constantly return to. I imagine I’ll only grow more appreciative of Dunkirk as time passes.

Anton: It’s difficult for me to say, since I rate most of his films very highly. You all remember how much I liked Interstellar! And Batman Begins is my go-to motivation movie. I’d like to see Dunkirk on video to see how it holds up.

Anders: I’d rank it in the top half for sure, but as you say, I like all of his films a great deal. I would place Dunkirk at the moment behind Inception, The Prestige, and Memento, which for me form a sort of thematic trilogy. The Dark Knight ranks in there somewhere as well. Like you, I have a great fondness for the Dark Knight Trilogy (I find The Dark Knight Rises in particular grows in my estimation with time and reviewing). Perhaps, as we suggested above, Dunkirk and Interstellar are part of a new thematic interest in humanism in the face of extreme situations: war and space exploration. Who knows where he’ll go next?