Spinoza once opined that you couldn’t use words to describe God, because by choosing any one or several, you would be eliminating the infinite nature of the deity. That essential inadequacy of words drives much of Christopher Nolan’s stunning film, DUNKIRK. Stunning in many sense of that word. Hence, we don’t learn that Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is the name of the regular soldier who is our guide to much of the action. When we do learn it, and the names of most of the other characters in the closing credits, that generic nickname for a British soldier becomes a testament to all the regular soldiers whose names may not have come down to us, but whose courage is commemorated here. A commemoration sealed by the words Winston Churchill spoke in his post-Dunkirk “never surrender” speech included here as a kind of post-script, words which comes as close as mere verbiage could to paying homage to what we have just seen unfold, and whose import has been made starkly manifest.
Nolan spins three different viewpoints of the battle that took place May 26 – June 4, 1940. The week at the Mole on Dunkirk’s beach, where the 400,000 English and French troops have congregated after being driven there by the Nazis. The day it takes the fleet of small ships to arrive there from England after being requisitioned by the British Navy to rescue as many of those troops as possible for the coming Battle of Britain. Finally, the hour it takes a band of Spitfire pilots to provide what cover they can to the retreating troops on those boats. It is that first time-frame that gives us Tommy, the last survivor of his squadron, making a harrowing escape through the town of Dunkirk to its beach. There, troops are lining up and walking into the ocean to the few waiting ships that will take them across the Channel and safety. It is Tommy who overhears the Admiral (Kenneth Branagh) explain the predicament, why Britain is so miserly in sending help, that is must save both ships and airplanes for the coming battle to repel the Axis forces from invading England. If there is anything close to expository dialogue, it’s here, but the clipped delivery, the spare language, and the gut-punch of realizing that these war-weary soldiers are sitting ducks removes any clunkiness. As does the precise deconstruction by the Admiral of what will happen to the tide of war if these troops aren’t rescued to do battle at that later time. Again, it’s not the words, is the expression on Brannagh’s face, and on the faces of those around him, balancing panic and forced calm as they watch their numbers picked off by enemy aircraft that sum up the future stakes and the present experience.
Tommy is all but wordless throughout, as is the compatriot (Damian Bonnard) with whom he teams up. Words aren’t necessary as Tommy quickly surmises that the new boots on his new friend’s feet are from the corpse he is burying. Their silent exchange encompasses the shock and the understanding of war’s realities. The two go from there to ships that turn in an instant from safe haven to sinking death-traps, and to endless waits on that beach waiting for the enemy and watching a man, driven to despair or madness, walk into the sea. The troops with whom they mingle are as grim as they are, and as emotionally numbed in self-defense, reigniting in spurts with the same ferocity of their previous repression. Dialogue about what they are feeling would be an exercise in futility, and a disservice to those feelings.
The fleet of so-called little ships, some the actual crafts that took part in the rescue, is represented by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), the owner of a pleasure boat who accepts the military requisition, but prefers to take the wheel himself. His son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and son’s friend, George (Barry Keoghan) come along, wanting to do their part, and discovering what that means when they pick up a soldier (Cillian Murphy) adrift on a sunken ship. In a gentle voice, Rylance explains Murhpy’s silent terror as the result of shell-shock for what he’s seen, a shell-shock that might never end. More than mere exposition, it’s an expression of the humanity that suffuses the film, the compassion in the midst of savagery that is the apotheosis of heroism.
In the air is Tom Hardy, the pilot who watches his country’s ships sunk by the Luftwaffe, and his fellow pilots go into the drink as he calculates his fuel supply using chalk and math when his gauge is damaged during a dogfight. Hardy proves as he did in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES that a mask is no obstacle to him in delivering a resonant performance. As his fuel runs low, and we can see only his eyes, and the voice we hear is hear is muffled by his flight mask, the visceral experience of his character weighing his options and obligations is as powerful as any sequence in the film. Similarly, the close-ups that Nolan employs are as carefully composed and as limbically impactful as the spectacular aerial and marine sequences where death can be sudden and unexpected, or leering as it slowly stalks its increasingly desperate victim.
The disjointed time could have been a facile stunt, but in Nolan’s hands, it gives us a brief glimpse of Murphy’s character before his trauma, and the cutting back and forth to what these soldiers have been through, the planes in the air, and the boats coming to rescue them add a rich sense of purpose to the determination of all concerned. The lack of words make those that Nolan chooses to employ all the more important. There will be tag lines aplenty from this film, but the one that might be the most moving is Dawson explaining to the soldier why he has to go chugging along into war when he could take them both to safety, that it was a war started by old men like him. It’s only fair he try to help save the young men dying for that decision.
DUNKIRK is replete with haunting images that sum up the price of warfare using an immersive experience to create this simulacrum. Some are quick, flashes of light as men drown, others are disquietingly beautiful as bombs explode in the night like fireworks, but all are part of the emotional build-up that catches us with a personal investment in these characters, and refuses to promise a happy ending for any of them. As I said at the beginning, it is a stunning film, and one that pays solemn, grateful tribute to the people who saved us from the Nazis. It’s also one that makes us weep, if only metaphorically, for the incalculable cost of war, even a good one.