There is a moment near its denouement that captures the achievement of Christopher Nolan’s dazzling modern war masterpiece. A pilot in a plane sinking beneath the waves is trapped desperately trying to escape, simultaneously on screen a soldier entombed aboard a submerged ship is engaged in a futile last desperate swim for the surface. The camera is under the water with them, the audience plunged into the unfolding human tragedy one life at a time. Dunkirk is an utterly absorbing, affecting, dizzying cinematic experience.
Nolan focuses on the human experience on the ground, in the air, and on and under the water of the more than 400,000 souls caught up in the dire events of May 1940. Operation Dynamo, to give the evacuation its official codename, changed the course of history, but this is not a war movie about the big picture, or rather the traditional version of what that means. The political and military leaders in London are never on screen; only oblique references to the larger military strategic situation are made. Instead, the film encapsulates the entirety of the field of battle for its participants, spiralling through multiple storylines and characters. In doing so it strips away some of the mythology of Dunkirk, but what emerges is even more heroic, a staggering tale of human survival against every element.
Nolan does not shy away from the bleakness of war, or its brutality, this an apocalyptic world in which the sea spits mountains of foam like something from a nuclear Armageddon. There is also great beauty, not least in Hans Zimmer’s score, a pulsating heart that tracks the action and the blood pressure of the audience. A spitfire out of fuel glides silently over the bleak beaches of death and glimmering fire and blood stained sea below in one of many breathtaking cinematic moments that could be painted on a canvas. This is a work which needs to be seen on a big screen. You spin through the air staring down the sight lines of the fighter planes, bob up and down with the boats at sea and dive, duck and run with the desperate men trapped on the beaches.
In the grand tradition of the best war movies no stories are more important than others, officers and infantry face death and fight for survival with equal courage. Perhaps the most affecting tale is that of the civilian participants, Mark Rylance is typically superb as one of the thousands of small boat owners who made the dangerous voyage across the channel in the hour of national need. Making their slow way across the channel they are given more time for character development than many of the military figures. This too is true to historical reality, soldiers, and airmen were trained to be machines of war, they had to be to survive what faced them. Nolan nevertheless imbibes the film with myriad human moments, from the small comforts of cups of tea and jam and bread, to a solitary figure walking into the waves for home, or release from the torment on land? They are brief respites from a hurtling pace and the overwhelming nightmare of war which Dunkirk relentlessly portrays, aided by Zimmer’s haunting audio background.
The film does not hide the military catastrophe that the loss of the Battle of France represented for the allied forces, but in the closing moments the scale of the achievement of the rescue of 300,000 men and its rapid entry into the national psyche as a moment of deliverance are accurately captured. In the screening I attended there were few dry eyes. Nolan’s films have at times been called cold before, this is not a charge which could be laid against Dunkirk, one of the most human war films ever made.