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Dunkirk Is a Great War Movie Marred by Christopher Nolan’s Usual Tricks

Dunkirk. Photo: Warner Bros.

In Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan has made a stark and harrowing war movie muddled by his signature “Nolan Time,” that arty temporal scramble that he thinks is more illuminating than it is. Briefly, Nolan Time consists of several (in this case three) parallel temporal lines that appear to be out of sync but prove, in the end, to conform to a Higher Synchronization — not the work of God or Fate but of steadfast individuals bravely exercising free will. My own free will is exercised by not falling in line with the many and vocal Nolanoids, but I’ll credit him in Dunkirk with getting many of the externals dead right.

His springboard is an event that is cherished by Brits and less familiar to Americans, who tend to think of World War II as beginning with Pearl Harbor and the belated entry of the United States. It happens to be one of the most triumphant military retreats in the history of the world. By mid-1940, the Nazis had swept across Europe and pushed at least a quarter-million Brits (at minimum) to the beaches of northern France, the edge of the continent — almost close enough, as the characters in Dunkirk wishfully insist, to see the Mother Country across the channel. What was nowhere near in sight was help. By then, the Royal Navy had lost nearly 30 big ships, the Luftwaffe dominated the skies, and the waters teemed with U-boats. Churchill and company couldn’t afford to lose many more warships with the looming German invasion of the homeland — Operation Sea Lion.

I saw Dunkirk in IMAX, where the combination of size and a fat, square frame made even the panoramas seem like close-ups. Nolan and director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema (my new favorite name) contrive one of the most vivid opening shots I’ve seen. A group of soldiers moves warily along a street, away from the camera, surrounded by falling leaflets — warnings dropped from German planes to surrender or die. A moment later, all but one of them is, in fact, dead. The survivor, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), is identified in one of Nolan’s ambiguous titles as “the Mole,” which is easy to remember since he has a big one where his cheek meets his chin. Identifying himself as English, he moves past French defenses and onto the beach, where the Brits are queued up with characteristic patience. He wastes no time in picking up a stretcher and trying to get onto a medical boat carrying the wounded.

Watch Beautiful British Men Suffer in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk Trailer

Here, Nolan and his editor Lee Smith begin their crosscutting song and dance. In the skies above, Spitfire pilots Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden take off to protect the fleet by shooting down Luftwaffe planes — ever mindful in the ticking-clock way of most thrillers of their limited fuel supplies. (Hardy wears an oxygen mask for at least 90 percent of his screen time — it seems to be a running joke that directors insist on covering his great face.) Across the (small) pond in England, Mark Rylance loads his small pleasure boat with life vests, aided by two teenage boys, his son (Tom Glynn-Carney, a handsome blond lad who looks as if he’s on leave from Slytherin) and his son’s mate (Barry Keoghan) — steps ahead of soldiers attempting to requisition the craft. Rylance isn’t heading out on holiday. He wants to make the rescue run to Dunkirk himself. He will later say, “Men my age dictate this war, why should we not fight it?” And he has one other, more predictable reason.

Over his many films, Nolan has shown little talent for staging and editing action, but he’s marvelous at designing single shots, in this case the vertiginous plunges of planes and a series of terrifying beach bombardments. The explosions come in a line, moving toward a protagonist (and the camera) at near-precise intervals, all but vaporizing the next man over. (The soldiers rise from the ground, briefly survey the damage, and get back in their queues, as Brits are wont to do.)

Nolan has pointedly omitted the showers of gore and viscera that have become so common (in many cases thanks to CGI) in recent war films. There are a few dried, brick-red stains on the wounded, but I don’t recall a drop of flowing blood. It turns out that Nolan doesn’t need explicit carnage to make you sick over the loss of life. The horror is reflected in the face of Kenneth Branagh as the naval commander who stations himself on a pier at the water’s edge and watches some of his men die, the rest perhaps on the verge of death. If Dunkirk has a fulcrum, it’s Branagh, to whom all narrative threads lead.

What we don’t know at first about the crossing threads is that the cutting is not just among different locations but different time periods. That hits us forcefully when Cillian Murphy, whom we’ve met as a shivering, shell-shocked soldier helped from a mid-channel wreck by Rylance, appears in a subsequent scene as a forceful boat commander — so forceful that he’s capable of telling desperate survivors of another sunken boat that there’s no more room and they have to keep swimming.

There’s a great deal to hold in our heads: connections to make, holes to fill, people to keep straight. (One Direction’s Harry Styles is in there somewhere, another smudged face with good cheekbones.) Tying the disparate scenes together is Hans Zimmer’s score, which keeps a steady 4/4 beat while never resolving a chord. The brass is muffled, the strings saw but don’t cut. The churning soundscape serves as a reminder that time is running out but that the soldiers (and the audience) is stuck in a kind of void. As the gray waves become even more unruly (Branagh’s commander says he’d rather face them than the dive bombers), the vision of a cruel and implacable nature approaches real tragedy.

The problem is when Nolan turns upbeat, when narrative threads begin to merge and cold fear is replaced by warm sap. The appearance of England’s small boats is appropriately heart-swelling, testament to the bravery and resourcefulness of “the common man” that makes Dunkirk one of the few bright spots in a war whose barbarity still eats into the mind. But Rylance’s firm but moist determination at the helm and Hardy’s stoic Spitfire maneuvers are another matter. For all Nolan’s modernist techniques, his cavalry-is-coming cliff-hangers are eye-rollers — overlong, corny, and clunkily edited. When the structure of Dunkirk becomes visible, when it stands as a mathematical demonstration of brave individual choices lining up in a tidy row, you might realize that you’ve been had.

Or maybe not. Although I find most of Nolan’s work to be pulp bloated by pomposity, a good many intelligent people love his films. Apart from its philosophical heft, Nolan Time has the benefit of psyching audiences out, keeping them so busy trying to make linear sense of what they’re watching that they miss the obviousness of the plotting. Nolanoids I know talk about needing to go back and see the movies again as if to demonstrate how challenging he is. But needing to rewatch something because you can’t make sense of it the first time isn’t exactly a testament to a director’s skills as a storyteller.

What Nolan plus IMAX can do is go big. Spitfire swerving, boat tippings, men dropping to the sand as planes scream by — it doesn’t get any better. That first shot of men on a street in a shower of paper on which their deaths are foretold — brilliant. Somewhere inside the mess that is Dunkirk is a terrific linear movie.

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