While I’m dusting off memories of movie viewings past, let’s not forget Dunkirk, which I saw over the summer. Normally, I’m a Christopher Nolan skeptic. He likes the idea of ideas, which gives him a leg up on the Michael Bays of the world, but it’s as if he pastes passages from Wikipedia articles into his scripts; everything else is overridden, and, to me, overwritten. His structures are ornate: rat mazes with no cheese in the middle.
The framework of Dunkirk, with its expansions and compressions of time that vary from section to section, didn’t bother me, though, because they serve the drama. Altogether, it’s a logistically impressive rendering of a logistical nightmare: the Allied evacuation of Dunkirk, following the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. Though little-known here, it’s a touchstone in Great Britain. Their soldiers were rescued by intrepid civilians in fishing boats. This part of the story is represented by Mark Rylance, who seems too old to be the father of Tom Glynn-Carney (a sweater-clad thirst-trap), and by Cillian Murphy, whose shell shock implies horrors off-screen.
There are other subplots, one involving the unnerved senior brass of the Navy (embodied by Kenneth Branagh), and another featuring Harry Styles as one of the soldiers caught up in the evacuation. (For reasons that seem historically inaccurate, his visage does not exceed the mean cheekbone height among the grunts.) If these scenes evoke the sense of chaos, those featuring Tom Hardy as a fighter pilot—which are the most absorbing in the film—have an almost abstract clarity. The elements seem as daunting as the Nazi aviators, with whom he’s locked in a battle of nerves.
Part of what makes this film effective is that it’s like Nolan Unplugged. By reducing dialogue to the bare minimum, he’s freed from the verbiage that normally weighs him down. Hardy takes this challenge by the horns and acts with only the muscles around his eyes. From Bane to Mad Max to this Spitfire pilot, Hardy keeps getting muzzled. That must be the price he pays for being such a gifted physical performer, a shoo-in to play Houdini.
Nolan’s twists and turns make him another Houdini-wannabe, thus this event seems tailor-made to his skill set. He doesn’t need Big Ideas to tell this story. (Those seem to have have fled with the Brits.) If anything, the simple ideology he lets slip here is a useful reality check for the world we live in. We aren’t shown the invaders until the end, and, even then, it is only a peek. This is the Second World War from the ground level. Nary a word is wasted on fascism, or communism, or even democracy. Nolan’s impassioned subject is patriotism for the England that Orwell described, specifically for Little England, with its rugby matches and teacakes and skepticism about the continent it overhangs. The Germans aren’t villains because of the Final Solution; they are villains for threatening to step foot on the heroes’ home soil. In this regard, the film’s value system is not far removed from the tribalism of Trump, which assumes that one’s tribe is better not on its merits, but because it happens to be one’s tribe.
I don’t know Nolan’s politics and my comparison isn’t intended as libelous or glib. The patriotism showed at Dunkirk was responding to an existential threat. France had already fallen, fast; Britain, plagued by its own internal strife, was but a channel away. Even given conditions so dire, in which the motives for courage might be no more conscious than instinct, one should not be faulted for being moved by this achievement, or drawing pride from those who sailed into the storm to protect their fellow Britons. Trump is a broken, baleful clock, but even those can be right once a century.