So much has been written by now about Dunkirk that I hesitate to add my own bit. Better to jump to a film that’s more of the moment, such as Good Time, by Benny and Josh Safdie. But in case my ideas about the one should somehow apply to the other, I’ll pause to think about Dunkirk’s Christopher Nolan, the Dr. Feelbad of blockbuster directors.
“Doctor,” because he’s forever displaying a quasi-scientific expertise in warping cinematic space-time. “Feelbad,” because he never lets a hero sail into the higher dimensions without carrying a ballast of guilt. Four interlocking levels of dreamland in Inception weren’t enough to keep Leonardo DiCaprio from being pulled down toward the memory of his dead wife. The vortex of a black hole in Interstellar didn’t tug at Matthew McConaughey as strongly as his grief at having abandoned his daughter. As for poor Christian Bale, we’ve all seen how Nolan made him batty.
Dunkirk is Nolan’s first movie based on real events, but the emotional ground he gives his characters hasn’t changed. His British soldiers are surrounded by Nazi forces on the beach while engulfed within by their sense of failure. Maybe they’ll be rescued from the first trap, if they’re lucky enough to dodge the Luftwaffe dive-bombers, but they can’t escape the second. Survival will mean living in the humiliation of defeat; and so they’re no better than they should be, behaving as if shame is already lost.
Anglo-American World War II movies don’t always portray the Allied combat troops as brave and morally clean (have you watched The Big Red One recently?), but Dunkirk is extraordinary for depicting its soldiers, almost without exception, as scheming, cowardly, and mutually vicious. The best of them, plucked out of a wreck in the middle of the Channel, turns out to be madly violent; the worst is ready to murder one of his fellows to buy another five minutes of oxygen for himself. I’m speaking only of the enlisted men. The officers, when on shore, remain as stoic as Kenneth Branagh, who mostly stares into the distance chewing the inside of his lips, and in the air are as gallant as Tom Hardy, who may run out of fuel but not the resolve to shoot down one more Jerry. I suppose superior breeding has freed the officers from the conviction of worthlessness that afflicts common soldiers and even the civilians who set out to the rescue in their little boats. The teenager who insists on sailing with Mark Rylance (the very picture of English middle-class decency, going to war in his tie and sweater vest) wants to help evacuate the troops because he feels he’s never done well at anything. Scarcely into puberty, he’s already haunted by failure.
In making this observation about Nolan’s liking for ostentatious gloom, I don’t pretend to dismiss the undeniable grandeur of Dunkirk, or to diminish the cheers that the movie elicits when its soundtrack at last cues up the Elgar. I’m curious, though, how this very astute filmmaker guessed that his audience would want Dunkirk’s happy ending to have the character of a redemption, almost of grace, freely given to sinful characters.