With his tenth feature film Dunkirk, which was released in France on the 19th of July, Christopher Nolan, who also directed Inception and Interstellar, moves from science fiction to historical account. In this overwhelmingly realistic movie, which looks very much like a documentary, he tells the story of the “Dynamo Operation”, a little-known episode of the Second World War that allowed thousands of British and French soldiers to be rescued after they were defeated at the battle of Dunkirk.
At the end of May 1940, British and French armies were completely put to rout. The soldiers were unable to stop the progress of the German troops in France and were eventually blocked and encircled on the beach at Dunkirk where they also had to cope with incessant air strikes. In order to avoid the total destruction of their army, Winston Churchill and his military staff decided to launch the “Dynamo” operation to repatriate as many men as possible on board of destroyers but also of pleasures boats and merchant ships requisitioned for this occasion. In his new movie Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan plunges us at the heart of this rescue mission which is relatively rarely referred to in history books.
Abandoning the unrealistic plots that made his previous films so successful, the British American filmmaker follows the footsteps of many of the biggest Hollywood stars who directed great war movies. So, the fans of the genre will be happy to watch the unavoidable and endless lines of thousands of extras dressed in period uniforms and the bombings and air-to-air combat scenes that they can legitimately expect in such a film.
Yet, unlike the great majority of the other movies dealing with the Second World War that usually show the destiny of one or several fictional or real main protagonists, Dunkirk is characterized by a relative absence of plot and a triple temporality. The scenario centres, at the same time, on the troops waiting on the beach for a whole week, on the two-day journey of an old English sailor (played by Mark Rylance) who travels to France on his own boat with his son and a deckhand to rescue soldiers, and a one-hour mission undertaken by three British aviators in order to protect the ships from German war planes. This makes the chronology of events difficult to follow and reinforces the impression of confusion and chaos given by the images shown on screen. Moreover, Christopher Nolan focuses more on the group than on the individuals. So, the dialogues are scarce and the psychology of the characters is barely developed. That is why none of them appears to be the hero of the story and they are all on an equal footing. This allows the filmmaker to show the different reactions people can have in so extreme a situation without making any value judgment whatsoever. Therefore, he films the same way the heroic deed of a pilot (incarnated by Tom Hardy) who risks his life to save those of a great number of soldiers, and the moment of madness of a submariner (played by Cillian Murphy) rescued at the last second from his sinking vessel and who refuses to go back to Dunkirk to save others. Besides, he presents the mere fact of having managed to survive as an exploit. This neutrality and the realism of the events shown on screen confers a documentary dimension to the movie and it makes it even more moving since the spectators feel as if they were parachuted right in the middle of the battle.
Thus, by highlighting solidarity rather than individual heroism, Christopher Nolan offers us a deeply patriotic movie. Moreover, by telling events that, despite defeat, appeared later to be a little-known and yet fundamental episode that led to the final victory of the Allies, he contributes, with Dunkirk, to the necessary and endless memory work.
Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan, USA, UK, France, Netherlands, 2017, 1h46, released in France, Belgium and Switzerland on the 19th of July 2017, in the United States of America, the United Kingdom and Canada on the 21st of July 2017 and in Lebanon on the 27th of July 2017.