Dunkirk is a movie told through noise and fire, not through characters and words. In fairness, director-writer Christopher Nolan was never really a great wordsmith. His movies are remembered more for their intricate narratives than for their clunky dialogue. But Nolan’s latest war epic experiments with something he hasn’t done before: a movie without a central character.
Dunkirk traps us in the French city of Dunkirk during World War 2. The year is 1940; German forces have surrounded the Allied troops and drove them onto the beaches. As the British soldiers prepare to evacuate, German bombers and U-boats destroy outgoing British military ships, forcing the British to rely on civilian boats to ferry the soldiers back to Britain.
The story is split into three interwoven plot threads: The Mole, The Sea, and The Air. The Mole takes place on the harbour of Dunkirk as soldiers struggle to evacuate amidst bombs and bullets. The Sea begins in Britain as a father and his two sons take their private yacht to help with the evacuation. Finally, The Air takes place in the skies above the English Channel as three British fighter pilots provide air support by eliminating German aircraft.
Looking at its characteristics, Dunkirk can be classified as an example of “hyperlink cinema.” Hyperlink cinema refers to a sprawling, non-linear narrative that cuts between a multitude of characters. Popular hyperlink films include Pulp Fiction and Snatch. Hyperlink cinema is often defined by sharp character design; the ability to distinguish between characters is incredibly important in a complex narrative.
But in Dunkirk, many of the characters are interchangeable. By the end, I could hardly recall a single name. This largely has to do with the sparse amounts of dialogue. What little dialogue existed in the film was either drowned out by the soundtrack or expressed in an awkward fashion.
Once again, Nolan isn’t exactly known for his screenwriting. If anything, this could work out to the movie’s credit. But what exactly is Nolan trying to accomplish by giving us a bunch of bland characters with next to no dialogue?
Home: it’s the word that best represents this movie. Thematically, Dunkirk tells the story of those who are trapped in a state of persistent danger. The true antagonist of this movie is not an army, but rather a force of nature. As a result, we don’t see any German soldiers, only the bombs and bullets that rain down on the British forces. Like rising water in a sinking ship, the pressure mounts exponentially with time.
This theme is accentuated through other motifs, such as the use of ticking clocks and environment sound in Hans Zimmer’s score. The music is unrelenting, for better or worse. In a way, it does capture the spirit of war. But as BMD’s Score Keeper writes, a film’s score must fluctuate in order to maximize its effect: “There’s never a moment where the ear is allowed to reset itself or cleanse the aural palate. Eventually it gets tuned out, or worse, you’re wishing you had a ‘mute’ button to rid yourself of it entirely so you can follow along with the narrative.”
This isn’t to say that the music doesn’t work for the movie, but that the music is painfully monotonous. There is more to film music than adding intensity. To be fair, this is something we’ve seen time and again whenever Zimmer works with Nolan. Zimmer’s soundtrack tend to be epic and thunderous, almost deafeningly so. And in a movie where the screech of a falling bomb is loud enough to make me cringe, I don’t think the music adds anything to the movie.
And this perspective on the music can pretty much be said for the entire movie as a whole. Dunkirk is a one-note endurance test where we are besieged by an unseen force for 100 minutes. Outside of the setting, all three plot threads are ostensibly the same: amidst fear and apprehension, thousands of people race against time in an effort to survive. But as Film Crit Hulk writes in his article on Nolan’s filmography, “The notion of survival is neither the root expression nor core feeling of Nolan’s films.”
Which I suppose is true. Survival is simply a means to an end, not the emotional response that we as an audience feel. But then what are we supposed to take away from Dunkirk? What is it really about? Guilt? Obsession? Patriotism? Hulk claims his movies are all about anguish, but I would argue otherwise.
I believe Dunkirk, like all of Nolan’s other movies, is about self-sacrifice.
Eventually, every Nolan movie ends up in limbo. Sometimes, we have to go to limbo and escape; other times, we’ve been in limbo all along. And in Dunkirk, the battlefield itself is our limbo. It is a war zone where we are in a perpetual state of vulnerability. The only thing that can rescue us from this helplessness is the courage of ordinary people.
So in this hellish landscape, which character best represents Nolan’s artistic message? Hulk further argues in his aforementioned article that Fionn Whitehead’s character captures Nolan’s repressed fear of death and the perseverance to survive in spite of it. But as I’ve mentioned before, all the characters are basically the same. Everyone is struggling to survive, to make a difference, to serve their country.
Generally speaking, this kind of characterization would be a death sentence for most movies. But here, it makes a lot of sense. Nolan doesn’t just have empathy for a single protagonist, he empathizes with all the characters in his movie. He is the scared private trying to survive on the beaches, as well as the grizzled commander looking in awe at his country’s selflessness. He is as much the shell-shocked soldier as he is the young boy eager to become a war hero. He is both the tireless fighter pilot and the ungrateful soldier criticizing him.
There is no central character in the movie because everyone is important. Every character in the film makes a sacrifice for the greater good.
And in the end, that’s what all of Nolan’s movies are about. I can see how his protagonists are always plagued with guilt and anguish, but I find that the idea of sacrifice encapsulates his films the best. That sometimes, we must do what is right, even at our weakest moments. Sometimes, we must overcome our grief and let go of our loved ones. Sometimes, we must leave our families so humanity may survive. Sometimes, we must become a dark knight so that the city can believe in virtue and justice.
And sometimes, we must fight for others so that they may live another day.
Dunkirk is a grueling experience, even compared to the standards set by other war movies. Frankly speaking, I didn’t really enjoy this film, and I don’t intend on watching it again anytime soon. With that said, it is audacious in its execution, and is perhaps the purest cinematic experience Nolan has ever made. The film is brief, tense, and practically wordless. There is hardly any exposition, and no lengthy monologues to be found.
But best of all, Dunkirk isn’t a war movie. Because ultimately, there’s only one truth about war: the journey back home is the only part of the war that matters.