Grand, Bland and Nationalistic: Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk

Dr Stephen Harper of Portsmouth University is impressed by some aspects of the new cinematic telling of history’s largest military evacuation – but what about the film’s politics? 

According to my late mother, my grandad was evacuated on ‘the last boat out of Dunkirk’. I didn’t discuss this with the old guy before he died – I was too young and lived too far away from him – but after his death I read more about Operation Dynamo and often wondered about his story. Christopher Nolan’s much-heralded extravaganza is the latest of several attempts to put that story on the big screen.

It’s only fair to begin by saying that I’m no great fan of Nolan’s work. I found Interstellar (2014) overblown, and several critics have – rightly, I think – identified films such as The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) as politically conservative. Let’s just say I prefer Nolan’s early work. Nevertheless, stylistically, the new film is innovative and sometimes captivating: throughout Dunkirk, sea and sky twist and spiral in a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of blue-grey fractals. And Nolan builds tension well, emphasizing the soldiers’ desperate plight by showing men in various types of trap: Harry Styles and company are trapped in a boat that is being shot at by the enemy; a Spitfire pilot is unable to escape from the cockpit of his sea-ditched plane as the water level rises; a traumatized and unpredictable soldier (Cillian Murphy) is locked inside a room below deck on a rescue boat – and presumably locked inside himself, too. All are encased and in danger.

On the other hand, we are hardly invited to empathize with these imperilled men. The ensemble nature of the film – together with Hans Zimmer’s bombastic musical soundtrack – leaves little room for expressions of interiority or, indeed, for any sort of character development; as one might expect from a film shot on 70mm, this is experiential, immersive cinema rather than character-driven drama. Of course, ensemble war films can work well: one thinks here of The Thin Red Line, whose metaphysical voiceovers provide a ruminative and arguably subversive perspective on war; but in Dunkirk there is no such narrative device to shed light on the soldiers’ feelings or thoughts, making this a rather unengaging film at the emotional level.

The film’s ideological register, meanwhile, is distinctly British-patriotic. While the opening scene (easily the film’s most exciting) fleetingly depicts some glowering Frenchmen manning the town’s barricades, the very significant French presence on the beach at Dunkirk is all but ignored (for that side of the story, see Henri Verneuil’s superior, irony-laden 1964 film Weekend at Dunkirk). Whether in the air with an impossibly deadly Spitfire ace played by Tom Hardy (who single-handedly seems to down the entire Luftwaffe), at sea with saturnine sailor Mark Rylance, or on the beach with the harried and frustrated evacuees, we see through British eyes. At times the national-chauvinist sentiment grates: Rylance, sailing towards a deadly warzone, finds time to wax lyrical about the beauty of the overhead Spitfires ‘with their Rolls Royce engines’ and the film ends, all too predictably, with the words of Winston Churchill, solemnly read aloud from a newspaper by a returning soldier.

None of the soldiers, meanwhile, expresses a view about the political causes of their plight and there is thus no counterweight to the film’s patriotism. Indeed, while Dunkirk is a film about an inglorious defeat, the mood slowly lists towards sentimental nationalism (recalling a motif from Interstellar, ‘Home’, as uttered by Kenneth Branagh’s naval officer Commander Bolton, becomes the film’s most resonant word). Evacuated of the French allies, the German enemies, and any political frame of reference beyond Churchillian bluster, Nolan’s film feels strangely insular and abstract (perhaps, as Adam Nayman suggests, Nolan should be seen as a Platonic rather than a humanist filmmaker). And so, for all its audio-visual Sturm und Drang, Dunkirk is ultimately a rather tame affair in which character development and political context are sacrificed for grand spectacle and bland sentimentality.

Image by Frank Capra (film) [Public domain], re-used via a Wikimedia Commons licence.