Directors Series: Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk
Along with the mass devastation and the loss of millions of lives, World War 2 brought about something positive: a recognition of the innate heroism in every person. It wasn’t just a conflict fought by unseen general and soldiers on some distant field by– it was a harrowing ordeal that quite literally hit home for countless civilians around the world. The European theater, in particular, saw no shortage of battles play out within the confines of its urban centers; no one could say their personal lives weren’t directly affected by the war.
When we hear about stories of courage in combat, we tend to remember these episodes with a veneer of romanticism, and rightly so– World War 2 is often painted as a necessary “good” war, in which the forces of freedom and righteousness waged battle against the evil and inhumane virtues of fascism for the soul of the twentieth century. However, the people actually living these episodes of courage — soldiers and civilians alike — most likely didn’t view their experiences through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. Indeed, many of these courageous moments were a result of terrified men and women simply trying to survive.
This sentiment– a complex fusion of bittersweet heroism, desperate self-preservation, and corrosive survivor’s guilt — drives director Christopher Nolan’s tenth feature film, DUNKIRK (2017). Structured less as a conventional war film and more like a harrowing survival thriller, DUNKIRK recreates the evacuation of Allied forces from the eponymous coastal town in France as an awe-inspiring story of unfathomable courage and frenzied survival, despite the event itself serving as a tactical loss for the good guys. This snatching of an emotional victory from the jaws of strategic defeat is precisely the sort of peculiar irony that attracted Nolan to the story when he initially conceived of the project in the mid-90’s, while sailing across the English Channel along the evacuation route with his wife and producing partner, Emma Thomas.
He envisioned an immersive experience that expanded upon the war genre’s rather simplistic emotional dynamics with a wider range of color, thus achieving a different kind of reverence towards Dunkirk’s participants– one that didn’t reduce their memory to cheap, two-dimensional patriotism. The idea stayed with Nolan through the subsequent decades, even as his career exploded into the stratosphere following the breakout success of films like MEMENTO (2000) and BATMAN BEGINS (2005). After the completion in 2014 of his sprawling space epic, INTERSTELLAR, Nolan finally felt he had accumulated enough experience and artistic clout to tackle DUNKIRK as his next feature-length project.
Admittedly, this is something of an absurd sentiment on its face– how could the director of gigantic films like THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, INCEPTION, and INTERSTELLAR not feel ready or experienced enough to helm a $100 million film about a real-world event? One only needs to look at the finished product to see the answer lies not in Nolan’s confidence towards his technical mastery, but rather in the amount of creative goodwill he needed in order to take so experimental a tack with such an expensive effort.
Indeed, DUNKIRK stands as something of a culmination of the many artistic strands that Nolan had been developing and perfecting throughout his career and only now was it possible for him to tie these strands together into a cohesive, singular experience. Here was a director at the apex of both his technical powers and his cultural relevance, empowered to make whatever he wanted at whatever scale he wanted thanks to a long-standing relationship with Warner Brothers that had reached the rarefied air of total creative trust and financial backing previously reserved for such heavyweights as Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, or even Cecil B. DeMille.
Their partnership had been so fruitful that, at this point, he could have asked for $100 million to direct an adaptation of the phone book and they would’ve cut a check in the room. Thankfully for the studio —and for audiences —it wasn’t the phone book that Nolan wanted to direct, but rather a harrowing, minimalist story about courage under fire that would showcase the director’s staggering technical prowess while pushing his artistic inclinations in bold, new directions.
In retelling the story of DUNKIRK, Nolan couldn’t escape the fact that the event was technically a retreat— at this point of the war in 1940, Axis forces had taken so much of France that the Allies felt their best course of action was to pull back and regroup for a better defense against the German’s inevitable attack on the British homeland. In the small coastal town of Dunkirk, close to the Belgian border, this evacuation was met with a relentless assault by well-supplied German forces, intent on decimating their numbers before they could set foot off the European continent.
Having cultivated an effective cross-cutting technique throughout his previous work, Nolan desired to employ it towards the whole of a feature-length narrative, in effect creating one long note of sustained suspense that he described as, in his words: “the story of immediate tension in the present tense”. Right away, this suggested that the director would have to eschew his tendencies towards increasingly-inflated runtimes and zero in on the most concise, succinct version of the narrative at hand. Indeed, at an hour and 45 minutes, DUNKIRK is Nolan’s shortest film since his 1998 debut feature, FOLLOWING.
The film is split up into three distinct planes of action: the air, the sea, and the ground (referred to in the film as “the mole”, so named after the dock jutting out from the beach). Each of these separate strands ducks and weave through each other, only to converge at the end as the battle reaches a fever pitch.
DUNKIRK takes a decentralized approach to its plot, trashing the idea of a singular protagonist in favor of enigmatic figureheads; fictional composites instead of historical accounts. They have names, to be sure, but we as an audience don’t have the luxury of time to learn them when our very survival is at stake. I say “our survival” because Nolan intends for these characters to simply serve as windows for the audience to immerse themselves in the harrowing sweep of history as it unfolds. We never see beyond this limited, subjective perspective— we’re stuck with the Allied forces on the ground, forced to flee with them as chaos and destruction surrounding us.
We rarely even see the attackers, save for the occasional German plane. In casting DUNKIRK, Nolan mostly ignores his reputation as a director of prestigious, Academy Award-nominated talent in favor of young unknowns like Fionn Whitehead, who anchors the mole sequences as the boyish and doggedly determined grunt, Tommy— so-named not for a specific person, but for the era’s slang term for a rank-and-file British soldier.
Whitehead’s story is one of sheer survival, desperately grabbing for any toehold to safety like a rat fleeing a flood. His companion in this regard is a fellow soldier named Alex, played by world-renowned pop singer Harry Styles in his first major acting role. Interestingly enough, Nolan reportedly wasn’t aware of Styles’ fame at the time, having thought he had cast a young unknown like Whitehead off the strength of his talents.
Styles nevertheless proves more than capable, readily eschewing any pretense of rock star glamor or vanity in order to fit in with the desperation and grit that surrounds him. The sea-based sequences illustrate one of England’s crowning moments of the entire war, in which a small fleet of civilian pleasure cruisers sailed across the English Channel and directly into harm’s way to help evacuate their countrymen in uniform.
DUNKIRK zeroes in on the journey of The Moonstone, a tiny boat captained by Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson. He courageously charts a treacherous course to Dunkirk with both his son and his son’s best friend in tow, only to find himself in a contained chamber drama when he picks up a lone, PTSD-riddled soldier caught adrift in open water. Played by longtime Nolan collaborator Cillian Murphy, the Shivering Soldier (as he’s credited in the titles) is hellbent on getting back to London, and his combative response to Dawson’s insistence on keeping course to Dunkirk leads to drama just as unpredictable and dangerous as the battle they’re sailing into.
The last third of DUNKIRK’s triptych of narratives finds Tom Hardy as a hyper-focused RAF pilot named Farrier, expertly blasting German fighter planes out of the sky in his Spitfire— that is, until he runs low on fuel and risks having to ditch out behind enemy lines. Another member of Nolan’s loyal repertory of performers, Hardy was no doubt selected in part because of his uniquely expressive eyes— an absolute necessity when the character’s face must be hidden behind a bulky flight mask for the majority of the picture. Hardy had previously accomplished this same task for Nolan as the menacing masked brute, Bane, in 2012’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, and achieves in DUNKIRK a similar effect, albeit one that’s better calibrated to his character’s stoic heroism. It’s also in Hardy’s storyline that one finds the film’s most cleverly-disguised cameo: Michael Caine, who just barely manages to add another link in his unbroken chain of successive performances for Nolan since BATMAN BEGINS by lending his iconic voice to the role of an officer dispatching commands over the two-way radio. Out of a cast of literally hundreds, Jack Lowden, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, and fellow director Kenneth Branagh deliver standout performances, with Branagh’s turn as Commander Bolton serving as a particularly compelling reminder of the dignified composure exhibited by the Allied brass even as the world was falling down around them.
With INTERSTELLAR, Nolan borrowed liberally from the Steven Spielberg school of filmmaking, adopting several of his predecessor’s stylistic affectations to imbue the unknowable majesty of space and our cosmic connectivity with a sense of overwhelming wonder and awe. Spielberg has similarly influenced the war genre, with his 1998 classic SAVING PRIVATE RYAN providing the aesthetic and emotional benchmark for subsequent war pictures to follow.
While DUNKIRK shares inevitable similarities to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN in a stylistic sense, Nolan charts his own course, fashioning a visceral experience that speaks to his impeccable technical pedigree as well as his desire to reinvent the visual language of whatever genre he’s working in. This is evident in the initial references he drew inspiration from— one might expect to see a list of iconic war films, but Nolan draws from a wider, more disparate pool of sources: ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS appropriately conveyed the chaos of battle to his collaborators, but other works like THE WAGES OF FEAR, ALIEN, SPEED, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, and SUNRISE asserted themselves as exercises in sustained suspense or unique applications of montage.
SUNRISE, a 1927 silent classic by German director F.W. Murnau, a 1927 silent classic by German director F.W. Murnau, proved to be a key reference for DUNKIRK, with the narrative challenges inherent in the absence of sound demonstrated for the benefit of the film’s ambitions as an almost-exclusively visual work. Towards this end, Nolan also looked to the influence of other silent-era directors like Cecil B. DeMille for his handling of epic spectacle and large crowds.
DUNKIRK retains the stark, austere visuals that Nolan is known for, adopting his signature metal & earth tone color palette while photochemically boiling his chromatic spectrum down to a limited range of cold blues, teals, and greys. The gloomy daylight that hangs over the English Channel takes on a creamy tinge as it provides the key light for a naturalistic, yet foreboding presentation. It’s only a matter of time until Nolan succeeds in making an entire picture with large format photography like IMAX, and DUNKIRK naturally represents Nolan’s most ambitious effort to date towards that goal.
Working once again with his INTERSTELLAR cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, Nolan uses conventional 35mm celluloid film only when he has to— most notably in dialogue-intensive scenes that take place in cramped quarters like the Moonstone’s cabin below deck. For the vast majority of DUNKIRK — about 70-75% of the finished product — Nolan, and Hoytema use a blend of large format 65mm and IMAX film.
While this approach retains the abrupt, somewhat-jarring shifts of aspect ratio between the CinemaScope 35mm and the larger full-frame gauges, DUNKIRK’s visceral command of its massive scale keeps the audience fully immersed with a minimum of distraction.
Nolan captures this overwhelming, all-consuming chaos with his signature epic flair, blending majestic classical camerawork with urgent handheld photography that ably evokes the “war is hell” tonality of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN while still asserting an aesthetic character all its own. Nolan’s love of aerial photography works particularly well in this regard, bringing seasoned and enthusiastic energy to DUNKIRK’s Dramamine-necessitating dogfight sequences.
The film as a whole naturally acts as the latest showcase for Nolan’s advocacy for the supremacy of celluloid’s organic grit over digital’s glossy sheen, putting the format’s resiliency to the test many times over. One particular instance would involve the loss of an IMAX camera when the plane it was mounted to accidentally sunk to the bottom of the sea. While the camera was understandably toasted, the film inside was not. Indeed, the hardy archival qualities of celluloid meant that not only was the footage useable— it was pristine.
While the film is stuffed to the brim with the epic spectacle we’ve come to expect from Nolan’s filmography, there’s also a curious tonal intimacy at play; a touch of the avant-garde that allows DUNKIRK to function as both a compelling dramatization of a historical event as well as an abstract meditation on industrial-scale survival and courage under extreme fire.
The bulk of DUNKIRK was shot in the locations where it actually happened— most notably, the same beach where soldiers lined up to board evacuation boats while bombs fell around them. Nolan’s longtime production designer, Nathan Crowley, even rebuilt the mole from the original blueprints. Even when the production moved to the waters off of Holland or a water tank in Los Angeles for select sequences, the crew dedicated themselves to historical accuracy in the details— right down to the last steel rivet. At the same time, his treatment of landscape reduces his backdrops to two planes of action: above and below.
The shared horizon line that bisects his frames ties the mole, sea, and air narratives together with a thematic uniformity, but it also has the effect of abstractifying the action into an interior realm. This impression goes a long way towards explaining why Nolan felt he needed to accumulate more experience & clout before embarking on production— especially in the calculated cynicism of today’s studio climate, he wouldn’t have been able to make DUNKIRK as the impressionistic survival & courage allegory that he did, at the level of production value he did, and with a mostly young and unknown cast… unless he himself was the brand that guaranteed a healthy return on investment.
It takes a great deal of experience and confidence to under-develop his characters in the manner he does here; it goes against every grain in our artistic bodies and everything we’ve been taught about writing stories. However, Nolan recognized that the Battle of Dunkirk was a much bigger story than any one person and that the most effective version of any film recreation would be the one that captured the shared humanity of its participants while installing key avatars through which the audience could immerse itself fully and share in the experience.
This is something that cinema does better than almost any other established or emerging medium, and Nolan recognizes this. It’s why he eschews cheap gimmickry like 3-D in favor of large film formats that quite literally fill the audience’s field of view. It’s why he avoids the uncanny plastic sheen of digital and embraces the organic warmth and texture of celluloid. Immersion demands as few barriers between the image and the audience as possible, and DUNKIRK succeeds in this regard due to Nolan’s artistic precision as well as the subtle abstract touch he brings to the proceedings.
Nowhere is Nolan’s avant-garde touch more evident than DUNKIRK’s original score, composed by longtime music collaborator Hans Zimmer in partnership with Benjamin Wallfisch and Lorne Balfe, among others. Zimmer and Wallfisch’s foreboding suite of cues is anything but subtle, evoking the dark belly of the military-industrial beast that was World War 2. Limited melodies compete for air against an expressive industrial texture, with an arrangement of string and brass instruments manipulated so as to recall the alarming whine of an approaching fighter plane or the listless whir of a ship engine as it teeters onto its side.
Simply put, the score is a harrowing, unrelenting juggernaut of abstract musicality, made all the more intense by Zimmer’s deployment of the “Shepard Tone”— an auditory illusion that Zimmer previously used to similar effect on THE PRESTIGEand in The Joker’s theme for THE DARK KNIGHT, wherein a sense of escalating danger is implied by a tone whose pitch seems to escalate towards infinity without breaking.
The effect is one of squirming tension on the part of the listener; an auditory twisting of the knife that corkscrews the anxious feelings in our stomachs, like waiting for the beat to drop in Hell. As he did previously on INTERSTELLAR, Zimmer also synthesizes the sound of Nolan’s ticking pocket watch and lays it down it as the bedrock of DUNKIRK’s score. As if the music wasn’t intense enough, the tick-tick-tick sound of time literally dripping away amplifies the desperate intensity of DUNKIRK’s tone while conveying to the audience just how close the world came to an Axis occupation of the United Kingdom— if it hadn’t been for the courageous spirit and dogged resistance of its people.
Indeed, time — the device of the ticking clock — unifies the thematic whole of DUNKIRK, placing the film as an exploratory apex within Nolan’s career. Again, the story essentially functions as one large escape sequence, with the Allied forces racing against the clock from the encroaching German menace as they try to get off the beaches of Dunkirk and safely across the English Channel. In the capable hands of Nolan’s longtime editor, Lee Smith, this exercise in narrative minimalism becomes another forum in which Nolan can actively manipulate the bounds, indeed the very shape, of time itself. Since his very first feature, Nolan has actively utilized cinema’s unique ability to convey sophisticated storytelling through nonlinear structure. His primary tool in this regard is the cross-cut, which he’s employed throughout his filmography to tremendous effect.
Whereas Nolan’s previous films tend to use the cross-cut to add emotional heft to key narrative sequences, DUNKIRK basically functions as a feature-length string of cross-cuts. Rather than numbing his audience to its effects, Nolan instead seems to reach a new level of complexity and sophistication with his approach to montage. Each component of the story’s organizational triptych — the mole, the sea, and the air — takes place over a different time span: a week, a day, and one hour, respectively.
By dovetailing these sequences into each other as one seemingly-continuous event, Nolan effortlessly compresses and expands time at will. Admittedly, this is a rather large leap of artistic license on Nolan’s part, especially when so much attention is otherwise paid to historical accuracy within the frame, but Nolan’s approach nonetheless captures the harrowing emotional truth of the battle. The fractured chronological presentation also allows the story to revisit key moments from earlier in the film, revealing different perspectives that deepen our understanding of the big picture.
One such moment is the scene where Farrier’s co-pilot ditches into the sea. From Farrier’s perspective in the air, it looks like a stable, almost peaceful water landing; assured of his colleague’s safety, he jets off to another part of the battle. From the co-pilot’s perspective, however, it’s a very different story: beyond the initial impact of the crash landing, the cabin quickly fills up with water, and he can’t open the cockpit glass to escape. DUNKIRK is filled with moments like these; moments that convey a complex, dueling subjectivity that amplifies as the various timelines intersect and collide with each other.
Nolan’s creative subversion of chronology is easily the most visible signifier of his authorship, but it’s far from the only one. DUNKIRK abounds with displays of Nolan’s secondary artistic signatures, like his fascination with functional style as embodied in the military uniforms seen throughout, or Farrier’s on-the-fly calculations about his fuel consumption pointing to the director’s use of math and physics as a storytelling tool. However, what immediately sets DUNKIRK apart from other films of its ilk is the sheer weight of the picture.
Nolan’s previous films all boast a visceral heft to their impact — a palpable gravity to match their monumental ambitions. This impression is due in large part to Nolan’s dogged insistence on practical, old-fashioned filmmaking that demands everything that can be captured in-camera will be captured in-camera. Famously averse to the reliance on CGI that stains the films of his contemporaries, Nolan commands an intimidating array of practical resources that give DUNKIRK its distinct feeling of inescapable danger.
Make no mistake— the ability to make a film at this scale with the resources he demands is a luxury; a direct benefit of his status as a certified moneymaker and pop culture icon. Fortunately, Nolan makes these demands always in service to his story, and not his vanity. DUNKIRK finds Nolan’s deployment of practical FX reaching new levels of challenge, necessitating the director to alter how he conducted his own set in order to create a truly immersive environment for the audience.
For instance, he went so far as to have members of his own crew dress up in the military costumes worn by the extras so that they could hide in plain sight within the shot as he shot in all directions. He also incorporated old-school techniques to amplify the size of his crowds; whereas now one can simply copy and paste any number of digital extras into a scene, he went to the trouble of creating detailed cardboard cutouts of soldiers to put in the far distance of his frames.
This pursuit of the analog over the digital permeates DUNKIRK, creating no shortage of technical challenges for his crew, like: “how exactly does one mount an IMAX camera to a vintage fighter plane?”. We should know the answer by now: by quite literally bolting the camera mount to the wing of a specially-modified plane, attaching some specialty periscope lenses and taking that sucker up into the air. DUNKIRK’s aerial dogfighting sequences boast some of the film’s most gripping moments; we can quite literally feel the G-forces pulling on our guts as we bank, roll, and dive with Farrier’s Spitfire. A substantial portion of these scenes were actually shot up in the air, with the actors in the cockpit.
Most filmmakers of Nolan’s ilk would be happy to throw up a mock cockpit in front of a green screen and call it a day, but his desire to capture as much of his shot in-camera as possible makes for footage that drips with hyperrealism. In Nolan’s hands, the mounted camera becomes a powerful tool of visual storytelling, generating intense POV shots as well as the kind of surreal images that only cinema can conjure— a standout shot finds the camera mounted sideways to the deck of a ship as it rolls over towards the water, but since the deck is fixed to a stationary point within the frame, the sea appears to coalesce into an intimidating wall of water that rises up to swallow the boat wholly.
In a filmography devoted to the study of heroes in action, DUNKIRK offers a very different portrait of heroism— earnest, quiet courage and hopeful resilience that stands in stark contrast to the theatrical superheroics of THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY. In this way, DUNKIRK represents something so much more than the director’s latest technical tour de force. Rather, it represents an evolution; an artistic maturation of an intensely-cerebral filmmaker at the peak of his powers. Despite possessing the monumental scope and bid-budget pyrotechnics we’ve come to expect from Nolan, DUNKIRK’s confidence to experiment with narrative structure and concise abstraction make for an unexpectedly intimate and personal experience. It is, in essence, an art film masquerading as a summer blockbuster.
The reception to DUNKIRK’s theatrical release would reconcile these competing halves of the film’s psyche, with critics like The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy hailing it as an “impressionist masterpiece” (5) and audiences flocking in droves to make it the highest-grossing World War 2 film of all time; generating half a billion dollars in worldwide box office receipts. A slew of accolades and nominations would single out DUNKIRK for its direction, score, and cinematography come awards season, but as of this writing, its final fate in the prestige circuit has yet to be fully determined.
Regardless of its awards season success, DUNKIRK stands as yet another major achievement in Nolan’s intimidating filmography. Its maximalist production values attain a unique harmony with his minimalistic narrative approach, making for a gripping cinematic experience that stands as one of the best of its genre. DUNKIRK evidence that, after a lengthy string of mega-successful blockbusters, Nolan seems to be exploring beyond conventional narrative structures and presentations in order to find some kind of intimate, yet universal, emotional truth— a subversive purity that uses modern visual grammar to reinforce timeless artistic ideals.
In a time where critics and audiences alike conflate movies with television and vice-versa as one indistinguishable medium, Nolan’s lifelong quest to preserve the sanctity of the movie house and extoll its superiority to the home theater has never been more urgent. DUNKIRK is nothing less than a shot across the bow— a slap upside the head that compels us to remember what makes the communal moviegoing experience such a special one.
For all his pop culture significance and ambitious storytelling, DUNKIRK reinforces the idea that Nolan’s greatest legacy of all may be as the man who dedicated his life to saving to the movies, wielding his considerable clout with industry suits and mainstream audiences alike to show that thought-provoking, challenging cinema can be a universal language that is accessible and enjoyable to all.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics, and Indiewire.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. You can donate to support the project at Patreon.
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