Dunkirk: Christopher Nolan’s Finest Hour

Pop Culture

Dunkirk: Christopher Nolan’s Finest Hour

Illustration: Cleon Dsouza

The Army was stranded along the beach
Where Joe lay low, and prayed.
The Stuka’s screamed, and dropped their bombs
And the lines of men were strafed,
Three hundred thousand men despaired
As the Panzers lay in wait.

              -Dunkirk, David Lewis Paget


When you’re watching a shit film, your body will let you know. It will be engaged in things like eating, drinking, commenting, and playing passive-aggressive games over the armrest with the guy who is elbowing your rightful space from under you. But when you’re watching Dunkirk, as Hans Zimmer’s musical score nears a crescendo, the body language changes.

Tick tock. Tick tock.

Hands on mouth. Body at the edge. The boy gone blind. A man gone crazy. For the near two hours of the film, you are not a voyeur because Nolan won’t let you be one. He doesn’t linger. His job is to invoke the true lens of war and keep the camera shifting to the next man to meet his maker, leaving you with a dizzying claustrophobic empathy, yearning for emotional support and available armrests.

Based on The Miracle of Dunkirk from World War II, the film follows the Allied powers’ (Britain, France, and Netherlands) attempt to rescue their soldiers stuck on Dunkirk beach in France. The soldiers are in a fix. They are surrounded by German soldiers on the land, and German planes over the sea, who are bombing rescue ships without even needing to aim well thanks to the needle-like soldiers overflowing from the haystack, with no cover in sight. The soldiers stuck on the beach can see Her Majesty’s land over the horizon, but Death is inching closer, from above and behind, setting up a race to the finish line where even the fastest will not survive.

Nolan took that scene, injected its soul with cocaine and named it Dunkirk.

For the soldiers in Dunkirk, just like us stuffed into our oversized chairs, there is no relief before being hit by the marauding Germans – enemies whom we don’t see throughout the film because Nolan isn’t interested in making a classic war movie. There is little to no dialogue, just faces of men young and old, trying to climb up on top of each other for a way home. Chaos is not a pit, they say, but a ladder.

The entirety of Dunkirk is constructed with the hurriedness of a third act. It’s like the last five minutes of Inception, or the scene in The Dark Knight when Batman is batblading towards the Joker, who is waiting for him with arms wide open. Nolan took that scene, injected its soul with cocaine and named it Dunkirk. Hell, at one point, the entire theatre erupted just looking a plane crashing in the sea, belting out screams of “Nolan!” like aliens to a Sun god, for the film is just that damned attractive.

Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan, the world’s greatest blockbuster filmmaker operating at the peak of his powers, creating films in a culture where monocultures are dying. With the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime, the communal, social feeling which led to the rise of the motion picture in the first place, is rarely felt. The audience is sitting at home frantically trying to binge on the next episode or engaged in a race to drop a clever tweet or Facebook status, to be part of the conversation which will shift the next day to some other hashtag.

The personal screen experience has allowed seasonal TV shows like House of Cards and the litany of web shows on YouTube to replace films as a daily driver of conversation. “The Zen Koan of TV,” though, as Alison Herman notes is, “that there’s something for everyone even as there’s nothing for everyone.”

Nolan then, is the throwback, the missionary position of culture, forcing all of us to come out and share an evening, and even have time left for drawn-out exposition. Dunkirk is the last stand of the traditional blockbuster, trying to save a ship being torpedoed by sequels and superheroes. It’s less film, more event, the very reason we started going to the movies in the first place.

Near the end of the film, there’s a moment when we are unexpectedly stationed behind the crosshairs of a British pilot’s plane. The moment is critical, as Farrier, played by the flame-throwing Tom Hardy, has to shoot down a German plane in order to save a British rescue boat. Instantly, Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack, constructed around the ticking of a time-bomb, decelerates like Farrier’s plane just in time to allow Zimmer’s violins to get violent. A second later it all goes away, and all we are left with is Tom Hardy breathing heavily into nothingness. We have about three seconds to shoot down the shifty German plane, or else it will destroy the civilian boat, and hopes of rescue for 3,00,000 men stranded at war.

In those three seconds, the theatre of war will hit you like a torrent. You are there in the pilot’s seat and the burden of saving humanity is upon you. It’s uneasy yet exhilarating, extracting its fuel with shots of adrenaline by the minute.

Strap in and grip the armrest. You’re going for a ride.