Dunkirk’s Cinematic Simplicity

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

Story Structure

Christopher Nolan is the master of complex story structures. In his style of storytelling, his structures have their own character. The recursive development of his plots hinge on how he methodically chooses to craft scenes, interweaving them to grander designs. His characters are developed by their psychological environments alongside concise yet meaningful dialogue. There is a common thread in all of Nolan’s films, a use of layers. The heroes and villains, the scenes, situations and locations within his stories are all enmeshed with multiple meaningful arcs, and enraptured in myths and symbolism. In a pivotal Nolan scene, there is always several salient yet seemingly disconnected things happening at once. He gives the audience eyes and ears all over these 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. People like a mystery and they enjoy trying their hand at solving one even more. This is a challenging feat to pull off and adds immeasurable value to stories often being told in the shadows of violence, insanity, and death. The nature of the story in a Nolan film is just as dependent upon structure as it is upon subject matter. And this exquisite use of story structure is on full display with Dunkirk.

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 with its 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 & heroism. Nolan manages to capture both the methods and locales onto which the battles were waged, alongside his signature use of timing to weave it all together in the end. It’s not too complicated here in this film but it is ingenious. 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 all 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 all along the beach, the last bastion of safety for the English soldiers, as the French hold the line against the impending 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, 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 problem, the hard way and through the eyes of the young private, after multiple large ships are sunk during attempted evacuation cycles. Witnessing these smaller disasters alongside the English command (and Kenneth Branagh’s transcendent face-acting), we face the larger disaster and situational dilemma of actually trying to organize and execute this effort to save the army. My point is, the primary character being developed throughout the course of this film is the Dunkirk Evacuation itself.

In following the 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 and 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. Point in fact, 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 those moments 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 call for action and the extraordinary efforts those on the homefront can and will take in order to protect their countrymen and save lives. 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 part British, he is fully aware of what this story says about the communal endeavor of war and how meaningful this 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 it elicited in those that are. ~