Dunkirk’s Cinematic Simplicity

~ short essay on what makes Dunkirk one of my favorite films in recent memory.

Story Structure

Christopher Nolan loves to employ complex story structures. In his style, the narrative puzzle becomes its own character. The development of his plots hinge on how he methodically chooses to craft scenes, interweaving them to grander designs, recursively raising their tensions. His characters are revealed by the minutia within their psychological environments as much as their mission, an untimely betrayal, or the explosion of a bomb. Mayhem alongside concise yet meaningful dialogue unveils his heroes and villains. But always, the narrative remains the principal mover. The characters, the scenes, situations and locations within these stories are all enmeshed with multiple arcs, bounded in modern myths {the showman vs. the artist, order vs. chaos, emotion vs. reason} and psycho-symbolisms {memory shapes who we are, and is inextricably attached to simple objects – photos, bouncing balls, cards, masks, spinning tops, etc.} The environments around the characters, advanced by choices in the story structure itself, make a Nolan film.

There is a common thread to all of Nolan’s narratives: a use of layers, of both time and space. In a pivotal Nolan scene, the action spans several salient yet seemingly disconnected things happening at once. He gives the audience eyes and ears over initially disparate situations to build tension. By giving you at least a few of the puzzle pieces, it leads you to scrutinize how everything might play out as you barrel towards climax. Audiences like a mystery and they enjoy trying their hand at solving one even more. This is a challenging feat to pull off well; the satisfaction of the solution provides offsetting value to tales often being told in the shadows of violence, insanity, and death.

All to say: the nature of the story’s conveyance in a Nolan film is just as dependent upon structure as it is upon subject matter. And this exquisite use of structure is on full display with Dunkirk (2017).

The Dunkirk Evacuation, a surprisingly untold tale in cinema, was a comprehensive mass movement of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, relatively early in WWII, over the course of only 8 days. The operation featured Allied soldiers trying to escape certain doom at hands of the approaching German army, with backs against the sea. There is no telling how much the war might have changed given a different outcome here. It represented a military disaster for the Allied Forces which in turn, spurred an extraordinary effort by the English people out of necessity. In telling his story with this particular film, Nolan chooses singular focus. He wants to tell the grand Dunkirk story, with all its turns and significant meaning for the English, but within a narrow field of view.

The audience is placed right into the action of a few key players. One week on the Mole, where we run, swim and inevitably wait alongside a young man on a harrowing journey homeward bound towards simple survival. One day across the English Channel, where a civilian boat captain and his son heed the call of duty to save their stranded countrymen. One hour in the skies above the battle, where two RAF pilots dogfight against German bombers to make way for the evacuation below. Land, sea, and air – the symbolic representation of the mediums in which World War II was fought, all coinciding to tell a story fraught with peril and heroism.

Nolan manages to capture both the methods and locales onto which the battles were waged, wielding his signature use of timing, to weave it all together in the end. The plot, on paper, is not too complicated; the ingenuity comes in the presentation. This added wrinkle of all the elements of the canvas ultimately leading to the hero pilot > protecting the duty-bound civilian boat > which rescues our intrepid young hero, is an excellent use of story structuring to turn a simple, confined storyline into a connected narrative, and a supremely entertaining film.

Cinematic Exposition

Some criticisms I heard about this film was a lack of character development. I disagree with this sentiment, and my reasoning follows. Aside from the fact that it depicts story based on true & known events, Dunkirk is a film that is more about the landscapes, physical and geopolitical. In these shots of vistas, of the city, the beach, the sea and the sky – a certain ‘cinematic exposition‘ is conveyed. The film features a profound view into the actual geography and logistics of what this evacuation entailed. We see along the beach, the last bastion of safety for the English soldiers, as the French hold the line against the marching German army. We are shown very clearly the perils of trying to evacuate masses of soldiers onto giant ships, the Destroyers, to make it back across the Channel. These ships represent easy targets for German bombers; in their runs, they are able to kill swaths of the English army while also destroying valuable military assets for future battles in the war.

We see the problems from all angles. Most significantly, we see all the life-and-death action through the eyes of the young private. He is seemingly insignificant in the grand scheme of the war’s operation, but nevertheless fighting to survive the ordeal before our eyes. After multiple large ships are sunk during attempted evacuation cycles, stress for his life and for the success of the procedures as a whole rise in tandem. Witnessing these smaller disasters alongside the English command (and Kenneth Branagh’s transcendent face-acting), we face the larger situational dilemma of trying to organize and execute this effort to save the army.

The primary ‘character’ being developed throughout the course of this film is The Dunkirk Evacuation itself.

In following the life-or-death escapades of the individual human journeys, do we really need some lines of dialogue or flashback exposition showing parents back home or even a name, for the soldiers on the beach, to care about them as characters and want them to survive? No matter who they are, we give a damn about them because they are going through hell and are human beings.

The captain and his son, and poor George, take their duty to sail to Dunkirk, armed only with life jackets, as a moral obligation. We see that they won’t be deterred by the peril they know awaits. Farrier, the ace pilot (played by face/eye-acting savant Tom Hardy), is a hero who gives maximum effort, and ultimately sacrifices his own safety in order to save as many of his fellow countrymen as he possibly can in the sea and on the beach. The human characters are all developed via action, no words necessary.

As Farrier’s gaze glided over the cheers of the beachfront after returning to down one more enemy plane, I honestly experienced more emotional poignancy in such a moment then I have in many films in their entirety.

Knowing The Story

The Dunkirk Evacuation, even amidst severely disastrous circumstances for the Allied forces, was a triumph of human effort. Given the cause of saving hundreds of thousands of soldiers along the beach, pinned down and running out of time, the English civilian force back home rose to the occasion. The story highlights the prodigious flexibility of the vital civilian role in war times. Those back home, the elders, children and women, are expected to ramp up the means of production and ration their own supplies in an organized movement to aid the soldiers out on the front. However, given extraordinary circumstances, Dunkirk showcases the admirable response to a a more direct call for action from the populace; the extraordinary efforts those on the homefront can and will take in order to protect their countrymen and save lives is necessarily inspiring.

Mark Rylance’s character, Mr. Dawson, puts the responsibility he bears into simple terms, “Men my age dictate this war. Why should we be allowed to send our children to fight it?”

In the end, I think part of what makes this film so remarkable is that Nolan knew exactly the kind of experience he wanted to impart to the audience. Being British, he is fully aware of what this story says about the communal endeavor of war and how meaningful this story still is for the English people. It is required learning in the U.K. for all students. At the time, and like the movie shows, many of the young soldiers returning home might feel shame upon merely surviving the ordeal. However, given the circumstances, the English countrymen back home, galvanized by Churchill’s speech, give thanks to the fighters and proper context to the importance of living to fight another day. Survival was enough.

In the film’s finale, you can’t help feel a sense of exultation at seeing all those boats arrive on the shores of Dunkirk in deliverance. I am not of British heritage, I can only imagine the feelings that shot elicited in those that are. ~