Christopher Nolan; Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh
Tick-gunshots erupt over a silent street-tick-footsteps race down the beach-tick-bombs devastate soldiers huddled on a pier-tick. So is the rhythm of Dunkirk (2017). On the beach, in the air, and on the English Channel, Christopher Nolan composes a symphony of agony held in the grip of such a rhythm. In telling the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation from France during World War II, Nolan weaves his particular tendencies into displaying a world that has been shown on screen before, but never felt like this. Dunkirk has no intention of educating its viewers on any distinct facts about the war. Rather, it forgoes instruction for revelation. War, it is said quite often, is hell, and here Nolan takes the audience on a journey into the seventh circle.
Though the English are at war with the Germans, the most oppressive enemy in the film is time, which is given life by the soundscape. As he has done for many of Nolan’s films, Hans Zimmer provides the score. The backbone of his composition is a forever-ticking clock that intersperses the natural sound of the narrative. This touch highlights the plots construction. In what has become commonplace for Nolan’s films, the story takes place in multiple locations and time spans at once. These are the the beach at Dunkirk (or the “mole” as it is referred to by the soldiers), which takes place over one week; the air, in which we follow Tom Hardy’s fighter pilot over the course of one hour; and the sea, where we are placed in Mr. Dawson’s (Mark Rylance) boat for a day. Nolan intercuts these narratives, giving each equal weight, and achieves what many films have strived for but fallen short of: a conceptual way to convey the ever-present nature of the war. As Shawshank Redemption (1994) emulated the aching passage of time in prison, Dunkirk revels in the horror of repetition. For the exposed soldiers at the “mole,” each minute could mean death, but we must wait to see if their protectors and rescuers can reach them. The tension is sweeping, and Nolan relishes it.
To understand this edge-of-your-seat tension, one has only to look, or rather listen, closely. A fair criticism of Zimmer’s scores is that he often provides a touch too much, dominating the soundscape of the films he works on. Here, he is second violin to the virtuoso technicians in the sound engineering. The true soundtrack is that of war. Gone are the pounding organs of Interstellar (2014) or the omnipresent chants of The Dark Knight Rises (2012), and so also is gone the explicative dialogue of Inception. In their place is a sensual explosion, quite literally, of sound. The eerie calm of soldiers walking through the deserted city is interrupted by enemy gunfire, coming off in methodical rounds, one by one. Spitfires and bombers shriek like wailing monsters in the clouds before releasing their deadly salvo on the boats below. Again and again these sounds of death swell from the screen. They are the theme and variation of the film. No conversation or carefully composed melody could achieve the same result. As each round of bombs befall the exposed soldiers, coming with the regularity demanded by a demonic timekeeper, we hear the planes approaching and we know what awaits the victims. But just like them, there is nothing we can do.
Admittedly though, the sound cannot do it alone, and so is completed by Nolan’s camera. Dunkirk was shot on 70mm film, giving it a scope that is not afforded by other methods. It is wider, and it is starker. The beach looks as though it stretches off into eternity, and the ocean seems to overtake the horizon instead of disappear into it. Nonetheless, interspersed with these striking expanses, when the camera sits inside a sinking ship with its desperate occupants, it feels smaller than a whisper. All the while, the water, the sky, and the very air around the beached soldiers emits an indigo hue. Nolan chose to shoot desperation in the color blue. The choice gives the landscape a power, seemingly allowing the air and sea to meet in a united front against the hopes of the soldiers. Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) stares off and almost absentmindedly says “You can almost see it. Home.” But he cannot, and none of his soldiers can either. It is this mass of blue, of water, of air, that stands in the way.
And so, by placing us as close to the reality of this place as he could, Nolan makes us one of the soldiers, the volunteers, the pilots, and reveals what I believe is his central point: this was a war about people, fought by people, won by people. Not the people who sat in London plotting out the offensive strategy and assigning troops, but by those very troops, and by the civilians who rose to their aid. Nolan does away with the gore which defined Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Inglourious Basterds (2009), and does not employ extensive monologues in the style of Platoon (1986) or Born on the Fourth of July (1989). He is indebted to the war films which have preceded him, but he does not constrain himself to genre tropes. Paradoxically, he makes people central to the film without making them the point of it. His cast is immensely talented. Mark Rylance is the human manifestation of the British wartime slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Tom Hardy does with eyes what few can do even with dialogue, and Kenneth Branagh is scene stealing in his limited screen time. They provide a human face to be seen and heard, but as stand ins for a greater point about the experiences they had.
Nowhere is this clearer than in an early scene where he trains his camera on a soldier burying a body in the sand. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) comes across him, and helps. The camera lingers as he pushes the sand around a bootless foot. One could mistake it for friends playing on the beach, covering their buddy in sand while he sleeps. They may be boys, but this is war. Those who survived the passage are still boys after Dunkirk. There is no Churchill, save his words read by a boy who has been beaten by the war: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” And so they did not, by the grit of these people Nolan puts us on the ground with. Dunkirk is a triumph not because it shows what people did in desperation, but rather what they did in spite of it.