Best Films of Summer '17: 'Dunkirk'
“Dunkirk Spirit,” as it’s been known in the U.K., celebrates not only coming together as a nation in the face of adversity, but also the narrow squeak of avoiding a more horrific outcome—so there’s really no pressure in feeling the need to call this the best movie of the summer.
That ethos—an abandonment of inflated heroism in favor of wrestling with the murky morality of living to fight another day—is what makes Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk one of the best war movies in Western cinema, even giving Saving Private Ryan a run for the best depicting World War Two.
Smoke-filled rooms with generals around a map are replaced with cowering conferences on a dock, one more bomb away from being washed away at high tide. The glory of soldiers overcoming all odds is instead swung around to a lingering shot of a lone warrior ending his own life at the whim of the sea.
None of these details suggest that Nolan’s latest film lacks ambition, however. Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack uses an illusion known as a Shepard Tone, which appears to be a constant crescendo over impossibly long stretches. Tracks like “Supermarine” and “The Oil” constantly augment tension as the situation of 400,000 British soldiers on a foamy beach in Northern France goes from bad to worse.
Pressed up against the Belgian border and surrounded by Nazi troops, the Battle of Dunkirk has been forgotten by many casual students of history for its significance: the potential annihilation of allied forces and a jaunt across the English Channel to end Western civilization as we know it.
Nolan could have left his viewers with the claustrophobia of the beach—where troops await evacuation, one destroyer ship at a time, as unopposed German fighter planes pick off 18 and 19-year-olds like fish in a barrel—but instead weaves in two additional story lines as well as chronologies. A vacation boat commandeered by a concerned citizen (a standout role for Mark Rylance) coupled with a dynamic duo of British Royal Airmen (played mostly behind the mask by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) approach the horror at Dunkirk from home soil, folding their timelines into the prolonged agony of the beach at the climax of the film.
Although it’s hard to say who the main character of Dunkirk is, Harry Styles (formerly of One Direction and your middle school locker) and Fionn Whitehead anchor the beachside cast as young soldiers woefully unprepared for the nearly Sisyphean task of crossing the Channel. Styles captures the frustration of what Winston Churchill called at the time “a colossal military disaster,” while Whitehead plays out the loss of innocence at war just between his frail brow and narrow jaw.
Aside from Rylance, the boldest performances of Dunkirk come from Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy, who futilely try and exert influence as commanders on an uncontrollable catastrophe. Branagh’s task of triaging rapid casualties and injuries while attempting to maintain some semblance of morale makes him the most compelling character in the drama, delivering bad news while taking responsibility for nearly half a million doomed souls.
Yet history proved that salvation came at last from a combination of civilian vessels and the British Navy. Our view of the rescue comes largely from the cockpit of Tom Hardy’s plane, floating silently down the beach on an empty tank of gas, the result of a bad gamble taken only to save a few more lives. As Benjamin Wallfisch and Edward Elgar’s “Variation 15” alleviates the constant crescendo of uncertainty, the beauty at the end of Dunkirk comes not in complete victory or a clean escape, but a murky, narrow squeak that just barely edges out the worst case scenario. And there’s comfort in that. There’s comfort in having simply reached the other side of a horrific experience with no extra frills. It’s far more common of an outcome to diversity than the fetishized failing to success that the business world cherishes so much today. There may not be a better time for a film like this to come out when the odds of exiting a national crisis seem insurmountable.
While Dunkirk isn’t perfect, its very premise assures that it isn’t trying to be. The film is beautiful, exhausting, and tear wrenching, all without romance, a rousing speech, or a clear moral victory.