Christopher Nolan is surely one of the (if not the) most brilliant and meticulous filmmakers of his generation. His films are crafted with a total, cerebral intentionality. Many of them are structured like puzzles (Inception, Memento) or magic tricks (The Prestige). All of them come with serious philosophical heft, and ask questions that follow the viewers out of the theater for days or weeks afterwards.
And yet Nolan is the opposite of a snob: he makes his films accessible to the ordinary person, and he does this by ensuring that all of his stories are emotionally compelling, visually stunning (he is famous for his practical effects), unabashedly suspenseful with driving plots. Not only that, he does it without recourse to nudity, sensuality, or gore. For a critically-beloved auteur, his films are surprisingly clean.
His latest film, Dunkirk, is as good as anything he’s done, if not better. Nolan’s most visible flaw was a tendency to drive home his theme in overbearing dialogue or even voiceover; in Dunkirk, he practically eliminates dialogue altogether. Out of what’s left, he gives all the best lines to Kenneth Branagh, who handles them with Shakespearean aplomb.
Which Story to Tell?
Dunkirk tells the story—or more accurately, part of the story—of Operation Dynamo, the nigh-miraculous evacuation of 300,000 members of the British Expeditionary Forces, and some of the French First Army, from the beaches of France as Hitler overran Europe in 1940. At this moment, the only thing standing between the Nazis and Britain was an army trapped on the wrong side of the English Channel. Churchill hoped to save 30,000 of the 400,000 men on the beach, but a hastily-assembled fleet of over 800 small craft including fishing boats, pleasure craft, yachts, and lifeboats, many of them manned by civilians, managed to bring back ten times that number.
In the words of G. K. Chesterton, “Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.” No storyteller can tell every side to a story, even if given a fairly self-contained story to tell. In Dunkirk, Nolan draws lines to ruthless effect, creating a laser focus on his three subjects: a Spitfire pilot during a one-hour flight (Tom Hardy), a civilian yachtsman during a one-day voyage (Mark Rylance), and a hapless private during the one-week wait on the beach (Fionn Whitehead). The intense focus on these three stories results in an incredibly lean, efficient script from which all extraneous dialogue and characters have been pared down. For the viewer, it creates unrelenting suspense and pacing that grips in the first scene and never lets go. Allied with superb practical effects, the experience (even if not viewed in IMAX) is totally immersive.
To achieve this stylistic effect, Nolan sacrifices much historical background. Perhaps the most significant thing omitted from the film is the National Day of Prayer back home in England, in which thousands gathered to intercede for the men in France. Their prayers were answered when a storm the night before the evacuation forced the Luftwaffe to the ground; the following morning saw an unprecedented calm which enabled the small crafts of the evacuation flotilla to cross in safety.
They called it “the miracle of Dunkirk” at the time, but Nolan’s film makes little reference to divine transcendence. His characters shout F-words in one moment of extreme danger and stress, but not the prayers that would have been equally realistic and historically authentic. What there is comes more from his own fingerprints: as a creator himself, he cannot help betraying his own existence and pointing to the existence of his own Creator.
Like all Nolan’s films, Dunkirk is structured tightly and with complete intentionality. The three storylines begin hours and even days apart and do not intersect until the very end, but when they do, the audience experiences that sense of surprise and joy which J.R.R. Tolkien called “eucatastrophe,” the sudden happy turn. Throughout the film we see characters interact, often out of chronological order, in a way that seems entirely predestined. For a Christian viewer, the obvious in-story explanation is providence.
In addition, Nolan chooses to cut out much more than simply the National Day of Prayer. The only scenes actually set on English soil (there is a brief scene on a quay) come at the end, after the rescue. The German army, only ever referred to as “the enemy,” appear onscreen in just one shot, purposefully out of focus. Churchill is only a name. The United States gets only a passing mention. Exactly one character is given any kind of backstory. Michael Caine just manages to snag a voice-only cameo. Not even Tom Hardy’s face rates more than a couple of brief appearances, but fortunately Hardy has experience acting in masks.
What’s left once these lines are drawn—once all extraneous characters, events, and dialogue are excluded? The answer is simple: action. Specifically, the actions of those personally involved in the Dunkirk evacuation.
The Defining Power of Human Action
Multiple reviewers have noted what they consider a lack of characterization in Dunkirk. As an author of fiction myself, I beg to differ. Perhaps what they notice is a lack of dialogue and backstory. But neither of these things is the meat of character.
On the contrary, to quote Syd Field’s Screenplay, “Action is character. What a person does is what he is, not what he says.” I believe that this is a Biblical principle. The apostle James tells us that there is something wrong with people who never take action on their faith. They’re like people who look in a mirror and immediately forget what they look like (James 1:22–25). Without action, their faith is dead (James 2:17). A covenantal, ethical/judicial Christian worldview puts action at the center of the Christian life: we are created in Christ Jesus unto good works (Eph. 2:10).
When evaluating fiction, we’re often tempted to put a division between character and action, to the extent that we’ll describe some stories as plot-driven and others as character-driven. I’m convinced that a Christian theory of storytelling has no room for this unnatural division. In real life, our good works are the air that our faith breathes: our character is expressed in action. In fiction, characters serve the plot by being the agents through which the plot is acted out. And plot serves the characters by providing them with the opportunity to show who they truly are through action.
Dunkirk forces this question to the forefront by focusing almost entirely upon action at the expense of dialogue. There is very little talk in this film, although Nolan is ready to wield dialogue when necessary. The characters, especially the three protagonists, are defined almost entirely by their actions, and the characterization is clear and elegant. Privates Tommy and Gibson, for instance, have a crystal-clear motivation: survival. Their goal is to get home in one piece. Within the first few minutes of the film we’ve even learned something about their ethics and personal faults: they’re not above imposture and queue jumping. All the building blocks of characterization are fully present, together with a moving character arc as they begin to look beyond their own personal survival.
All this is communicated primarily via action, and that’s unsurprising. Christopher Nolan seems to have a philosophy of action. I first noticed this in Batman Begins, where action is the subject of a repeated line: “It’s not who we are on the inside, it’s what we do that defines us.” Most likely, this line stems from an existentialist worldview. In existentialism, the universe is fundamentally absurd and meaningless, and meaning can only be imposed upon the universe by human action. Action thus becomes a means of salvation from absurdity, a way for man to transcend his inability to truly comprehend the world around him.
No doubt a similar philosophy underpins the artistic choices in Dunkirk, and yet the world of the story is far from meaningless. Perhaps Nolan believes that it is his privilege as an artist and creator to impose meaning upon a fundamentally meaningless historical event (and he certainly gives Dunkirk a sense of futility) through the medium of his very intentional film. Or, more likely, he believes that it was the actions of the civilian sailors, the RAF pilots, and the soldiers on the beach that brought meaning to what, even at the time, Churchill called a “disaster.”
A Christian philosophy of action is not plagued by doubt about meaning and identity the way existentialism is. Instead, Christianity asks man to extend the Kingdom of God by faithful action. The two are not the same, but sometimes it takes a clever pagan to point out what God’s people have come close to forgetting.
Motivations in Collision
If action is the vehicle for characterization in this film, then its subject has to do with survival, heroism, and whether the two ever intersect. Since Jesus Christ, heroism has become synonymous with self-sacrifice for the love of others. Survival, on the other hand, puts self above others. And Dunkirk explores the moments when survival and heroism come into conflict.
Early in the film, we learn that Britain herself is in a struggle for survival, holding back the Spitfires and destroyers that might save lives at Dunkirk, keeping them in reserve for “the next battle—the one for Britain.” As the Germans close in, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) faces a dilemma: whether to evacuate stretcher cases first, or healthy men who take up less room and will be able to defend Britain when the invasion comes. And the enlisted men, demoralized by fear and helplessness, seem more than willing to abandon or even attack anyone who might slow them down. At the end, afforded a hero’s welcome in England, conscious that they have lost the battle and been forced to retreat in disarray, one of them confesses, “All we did was survive.”
“That’s enough,” is the response. The army’s survival will, after all, be vital to the war effort in the coming days. But while the film shows a palpable sense of triumph and relief at the evacuation, it stops short of depicting the soldiers themselves as heroes, even those who have made small steps toward genuine self-sacrifice. Their survival was key. Their loss would have been devastating, not just in terms of the war but also to their loved ones. Their endurance of hardship was ennobling. Their rescue is worth celebrating. But Nolan never tries to paint them as heroes, even as he has his more heroic characters extend grace and forgiveness to them for the terrible things some of them do.
The heroism in this film is elsewhere.
Partly, it is in the sky. Nolan’s devotion to practical effects comes into its own here: his dogfights, filmed with an IMAX camera mounted on the wing of a real Spitfire, are endlessly thrilling to watch, and pilots Farrier and Collins are two of the film’s most unambiguously heroic figures, whose self-sacrifice becomes one of the most stirring and moving of the film’s subplots.
But mostly, the heroism in this picture is on the sea, as it should be: with the various civilian men and women who rose to the challenge of Dunkirk. Nolan chooses to elide the role of the Navy in requisitioning and sailing many of the small vessels that made the crossing, in favor of keeping the focus where he wants it: on the civilians.
It’s an unusual but refreshing choice for a war film. Dunkirk is largely devoid of statist or nationalist idolatry. The most stirring moments of glory in this film belong to the civilians, and it’s worth noting that even the military heroes in this story put personal conscience above orders.
Dunkirk is not about glorifying war or nationalism. It defines heroism as conscientious, self-sacrificial, and primarily individual action. By contrast, bare survival is reaction: irrational, fearful, and often futile and destructive. It is understandable. Perhaps, where action is impossible, reaction is unavoidable. But it is not heroic.
Beyond Technical Mastery of Form
Dunkirk is surely one of Christopher Nolan’s best films, perhaps flawless. It is epic in scope despite (but more likely because of) its precise focus. It contains all the hallmarks of Christopher Nolan at his best: chronological puzzles, clever twists, visceral suspense, and even some subtle symbolism. In addition to these, there are some surprises in store, whether of sheer cinematic spectacle or cinematic technique: at least two moments have us cutting between parallel moments in the different storylines so seamlessly that for a moment we don’t realize the scene has even changed. These and many other things make the film a delight to watch.
But Dunkirk is not merely a technical tour de force, though it certainly is that. Any good story, well told, must by necessity reflect the greatest story, the gospel from which all other stories are derived. In Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan has made a film so good that it very nearly transcends his own worldview.