Lives on the Line
Technically, the plot can’t be spoiled because it’s rooted in historical events, but its thrillingly unorthodox unfolding is something that should be experienced with little to no prior knowledge. As such, I want to post a SPOILER WARNING here for those who haven’t seen the film.
In Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, the director’s 70mm shooting format imbues moment after moment with tactile, immersive clarity and the booming sound design envelops totally, but these properties of Nolan’s “Virtual Reality Without the Headset” go toward telling a relatively small-scale story: a group of soldiers are stranded and need to be rescued. There’s no Dark Knight-esque globetrotting or Interstellar-style galaxy-hopping here, just men on a beach, a handful of civilians on a boat, and a couple fighter pilots in the sky. By scaling up the production values for a modestly sized story, Nolan makes a statement alongside the spectacle: every person’s life matters.
This sense of life being consequential pervades Dunkirk, and the resulting film is unbearably intense, a counterpoint to the average summer blockbuster fare in which massive explosions that would kill hundreds in real life are set off without a second thought. In Dunkirk, we feel every stray bullet and piece of raining debris, every iota of collateral damage. When an enemy fighter jet plummets aflame into the ocean, the film doesn’t breathe a sigh of relief at a threat having been neutralized but observes in horror at the new threat that rises from the ashes of the first: upon contact with the sea, the flaming wreckage boils the water around it and sets fire to spilled oil, becoming as great a hazard to the Allied soldiers in the waves as when it had been airborne. In Dunkirk, the suspense never lets up because, for the soldiers, danger is always present.
Vivid filmmaking aside, most crucial to Nolan’s exploration of the weight of human life is Dunkirk‘s ingeniously structured narrative, which cuts back and forth between land, air, and sea throughout the film. The twist is, the events at the various locations don’t take place at the same time within the diegesis: the land-set plotline begins a week before the end of the historical Dunkirk evacuation, the sea-set plotline one day before, the air-set plotline a mere hour before. Moreover, not only do these three plotlines start at different times, but they play out for the viewer at different speeds, with the land-set plotline unfolding the fastest, the sea-set one at a slower rate, and the one in the air at an even slower rate (more or less in real time).
In addition to creating the impression that, despite unfolding over the course of a week, the film is taking place in a panic-filled present-tense, this unorthodox meshing of different temporalities enables us to see the various story events play out from different perspectives as plotlines that start at earlier points in the diegesis catch up to ones that begin later. For instance, near the start of the film, a damaged ship is glimpsed from afar through the windows of one of the jets, and later in the movie, the site of destruction is revisited from the perspective of the civilian boat once the sea-set plotline reaches that point in the timeline. Through returning to events from various vantage points, Dunkirk foregrounds and thematizes perspective: what might look like a tiny blip from a fighter jet cockpit is actually living hell for those in the water, and vice versa.
Dunkirk‘s message on humanity’s worth grows even more urgent when extended beyond the realm of fiction to the world in general. At the end of the film, a character reads aloud a statement by Winston Churchill in which the Prime Minister cautions against viewing the successful Dunkirk evacuation as a victory, since, from a military standpoint, Allied forces have ceded precious ground to the enemy. While he may be right vis-à-vis military strategy, the saving of lives absolutely warrants celebration, and Nolan clearly feels the same way in choosing to follow 100 minutes of harrowing footage with a quote from the political elite that dismisses the urgency of what we had just watched. Embedded within this juxtaposition, which frames the government as being detached and insensitive, is a call for us to recognize the reality of every human being and, specifically, that of our armed forces, who, despite fighting and dying for us in lands abroad, are far too often trivialized and forgotten by the very people whom they serve. When a legion of civilian boats show up to rescue their enlisted countrymen, the scene isn’t merely a rousing moment of national solidarity but the pinnacle of the movie’s insistence on the value of human life and the beauty of its saving.
“Every life matters,” Nolan wants to tell us through Dunkirk, and the message resounds from every frame. We would do well to listen.