Dunkirk and the Death of Certainty

The last proper “war film” I saw was Letters from Iwo Jima (or the rightly praised Band of Brothers if we’re counting television). These stories, and most war films, depend on creating attachments to characters and then throwing them through escalating, harrowing conflicts, leading to a cathartic or bittersweet ending with a message of the author’s choosing. Many of you must realize I’m not just describing war movies—I’m talking about the classic three-act structure of the majority of film. To discuss our mainstream portrayals of war in cinema is to analyze some of the very foundations of the medium. Many of our earliest films deal with war—propaganda, historical re-enactments. When the (short-lived) Yugoslavian filmmaking industry began after the end of World War 2, the majority of their films were Partisan war films. The purpose has both cynical pragmatism and genuine artistic intention. Creating characters we care about in the service of a greater cause or country lets the audience conflate their sympathy with said greater cause. The structure of most war film is rote and uninteresting for a reason—it intrudes on the audience’s viewing in no way whatsoever, stepping aside and letting the message or conflict have center stage. Pauline Kael once wrote that many “classic” films are from the studio era precisely because of their bland, utilitarian technique—anything more forced and they wouldn’t stand the test of time. War films and their story structures are the same way. Most of us don’t want uncertainty in our darkest times—we desire to see heroes of simply, wholly good character face adversity or evil and overcome it. Whatever may happen to the hero’s cause, we are certain at least that their cause will prevail.

Oh, what I would do for such reassuring feelings right now.

Dunkirk, from a distance, looks like an oddity in Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre. Its premise, the historical evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 in the first years of World War 2, seems ill-suited for Nolan’s fascination with puzzles or interlocking storylines. Yet Dunkirk transcends its genre, avoiding cliché, empty bombast, and rah-rah jingoism; it is a perfect fit for Nolan­—just in a rather subversive way.

The most important feature of a Nolan film is his twisting and turning storyline that can be followed through rationally. Yes, there are detours and setbacks, but on the whole, he has a rather idealistic faith in the power of the rational, the power of good. Remember that line from Inception? “I think positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time. We all yearn for reconciliation, for catharsis.” In many ways, Cobb is a stand-in for Nolan in that film, and this quote is no different. Of course, what we yearn for and what truly exists are two different things, which Nolan coyly acknowledges with his characters and his obsession with showmanship and deceit/world or character building (see: The Prestige, Inception, The Dark Knight). The only way for Nolan to give us reconciliation or catharsis is to put on a good show, because reality sure as hell isn’t going to give it to us on its own.

This knowledge, the separation between filmmaking and reality, is part of what makes Dunkirk such a resounding success. It is not a dry A to B to C chronological retelling of heroic events—it twists and turns the temporality of the story, following men waiting for an evacuation a week beforehand, boats on the way to evacuate them a day beforehand, and a plane dogfight in the air over the course of an hour during the evacuation. Then it mixes all of these together at once, weaving a tapestry of tension. The constant setting and sense of dread helps it all fit, rather than feel cobbled together. It’s not just a fancy construction for its own sake, either—it conveys a sense of endlessness, of constant struggle and conflict while still pacing and not exhausting the audience. Nolan is no longer making fancy playthings perfectly suited for his interests at a remove—he has now moved into chopping up and remixing events from reality. It is far more audacious and impactful for it.

It is rather minimalist in its storytelling. There is not much dialogue, characters rarely have names. There is not a macro plot, really, just a seemingly impossible goal with several micro actions taken along the way. The focus, therefore, is not a message or cause, but simply the human experience of survival. (That sounds really pretentious, but there’s no other way to describe Dunkirk’s hour and 50 minutes of nonstop bad shit happening. I was reminded of Gravity, and a cynical part of me thought that certain scenes were cut as one nonstop trailer.) If there is a message, it is in the film’s simultaneously bleak and determined ending.

SPOILERS GO TO NEXT PARAGRAPH. Tom Hardy, after having destroyed the last German bomber attacking the evacuees, runs out of fuel. He has no choice but to glide his stalled plane deep into enemy territory to land, but as his now useless plane flies overhead, the soldiers cheer him on. He has made the very best of an unwinnable, awful situation, but is still going to suffer for it. But for now, the plane is still in the air, and isn’t that still a pretty sight, even if it’s a futile one? SPOILER END.

The lack of an overtly happy conclusion is both a necessity of the subject material—World War 2 was not ended in 1940, after all—and a reflection of our time. As Manohla Dargis said for the New York Times, “[At the end] we are reminded the fight against fascism continues.” Not to make this overly political, but I think we can all agree times are more uncertain than most in recent memory. World War 2 ended over half a century ago, so why are we still revisiting it? Why does the struggle feel more present than ever? I would call Dunkirk a deconstruction of the war film, except it’s not even that—it’s too busy being its own thing off to the side to bother wasting its time deconstructing a genre that, frankly, is already falling apart on its own.

Which brings me to my main point. The nonlinear story resonates so much partly because we don’t know how else to process the magnitude of our time. A linear, chronological, three act classic story for a film no longer feels like a genuine reflection of our experience. It is a construction; actually, it always was, but now it is a construction that feels more “other” than ever. The best it can be is an aspiration. When up is down and the world seems alien and hostile, entertainment—in this case, films—have two choices. They can be escapism, or they can speak to that unreality. Films, as an unreality of their own—moving images, imperfect snapshots of the world edited together and projected across a room from us to be marveled at—are uniquely suited to do just that. Certainty and innocence may feel dead, but Dunkirk lets us know that we are not alone in that feeling. “Whatever may happen,” it says to me, “we’ll survive to make a movie about it a hundred years later.”