The great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky described the art of cinema as “sculpting in time.” Instead of a lump of clay, the filmmaker works with a “lump of time.” Instead of a chisel, the filmmaker uses editing to smooth something beautiful from the raw materials of seconds, minutes, hours, years.
The films of British director Christopher Nolan epitomize this aspect of the cinematic form. From Memento (2000) to Inception (2010) to Interstellar (2014), Nolan has consistently explored the unique, often mind-bending ways that cinema can mold time, providing escape from its unrelenting regularity and forward-only march. In the case of Dunkirk, Nolan’s knack for “sculpting in time” reaches a new apex. Dunkirk is to Nolan as “David” is to Michelangelo. It’s his masterpiece.
Land, Sea, Air
Dunkirk depicts the iconic “Miracle of Dunkirk” from World War II, in which more than 300,000 British and other Allied soldiers were evacuated from the beaches of northern France, where they were cut off and surrounded by encroaching German forces. Code-named Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of May 26 to June 4, 1940, became a symbol of British resilience and solidarity in part because it involved not only the British Army, Royal Navy, and Royal Air Force, but also hundreds of private boats with civilian crews who answered the call to bring their beleagured soldiers home.
Nolan narrates Dunkirk from three perspectives: land, sea, and air. Right off the bat, his creative time-sculpting is apparent as we learn that the action on the land will cover one week, the sea one day, and the air one hour. The land scenes contain many moving parts and hundreds of characters. The sea focuses on one civilian boat and a handful of crew members, led by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance). The action in the air is even more minimalist, restricting its narrative to two spitfire RAF pilots (Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy). This brilliant structure tackles a momentous historic event from a variety of angles, both literally (camera angles from the sky, beach, and sea) and narratively (from soldiers, officers, pilots, and civilians).
A week on a beach, a day at sea, an hour in the air—it sounds like a lovely holiday. It’s anything but. Dunkirk is a harrowing, immersive experience that captures the reality of war as powerfully as any other film in recent memory. In 107 minutes, it takes a vivid “impression of time” (to quote Tarkovsky) from a specific temporal and spatial lump: a week in 1940, in the English Channel. Nolan’s film immerses the audience in history more effectively than most three-hour, exposition-heavy period pieces—and it does so in the manner of all great art, by saying more with less.
Less Is More
French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” If this is true of art, Dunkirk comes close to perfection. Everything in the film needs to be there. Here again it’s like a sculptural masterpiece, with everything extraneous chiseled away to leave a lean, efficient, well-proportioned whole. As if to pay homage to the rationing attitudes that characterized wartime life—including rationing fuel, which plays a key role in the film—Nolan’s disciplined method features no frills.
For example, Dunkirk is shockingly low on dialogue, opting to advance the narrative through facial expressions rather than words. On this score, the actors shine. More is communicated through the expressive eyes of Rylance, Hardy, and Kenneth Branagh than even the best five-minute monologue. Nolan’s restraint is also seen in his choice to use practical effects over CGI. Rather than opting for the possibilities of digital animation—which usually means more and bigger explosions—Nolan is selective as to where and how he executes complex, costly action sequences.
The editing, too, is impressively tight. The film’s three planes of time intertwine to form a rhythmic pace that resembles the precision of a military march. Nolan’s longtime editor Lee Smith includes just the right amount of bullets-in-your-face action and quiet character drama to keep the audience both breathless and also emotionally engaged. Eventually, the film’s three movements spiral into one another with an accelerating cross-cutting, a Nolan trademark akin to one of those spiraling wishing-well coin funnels.
It’s worth asking if a $150 million film—shot on 65mm and IMAX 70mm, with a cacophanous Hans Zimmer score—could be fairly called “minimalist.” But Nolan’s filming choice and Zimmer’s thundering score are less about gratuitous big-ness and more about creating an immersive, intimate ambiance. Indeed, Zimmer’s score is more percussive relentlessness than emotional swell, intentionally cultivating a warzone anxiety. The dissonant barrage of orchestral music mimicks bullets, waves, plane motors, and dropping bombs, all dreadful sounds that rang in the ears of terrified soldiers. Zimmer withholds any melodic resolution until the film’s third act, when civilian ships finally reach Dunkirk. This long-awaited release brings a moment of sublime, almost religious catharsis, as the musical chaos finally gives way to soul-stirring joy.
Survival and Solidarity as Spiritual Transcendence
In Nolan’s Interstellar, Zimmer’s organ-heavy score is just one aspect of the film’s “church-like” ambiance that’s devoid of religion but infused with a religious sense. Interstellar is about the “miracle” of humanity’s knack for survival, of our refusal to go down without a fight. This sentiment is underscored through the repeated quote from the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Nolan explores similar themes in Dunkirk, yet again approaching with near-religious awe the “miracle” of humanity’s will to survive. The film begins with an epigraph that describes how the trapped soldiers at Dunkirk are “hoping for deliverance . . . for a miracle.”
But the “miracles” in Nolan’s films are never supernatural. Of course, there’s plenty of what seems supernatural, or what what looks like “magic.” Think about The Prestige (2006), for example, or the “it’s all in your mind” magic of Inception, or even his Dark Knight trilogy. What’s unique about Batman? He’s just a man, a super-hero with no supernatural powers.
Nolan’s films feature both British realism and a secular humanist vision of the cosmos that’s nevertheless characterized by awe, wonder, and an attraction to beauty. They’re not cold or emotionless, even if his aforementioned cinematic discipline can come across that way. Nolan grasps the liturgical power of sound, image, and narrative; he understands the inherent religiosity of stories that engage souls and shake bodies in a theater.
But what’s it all for? What’s the spiritual telos of a film like Dunkirk, which so obviously grasps for transcendence?
Solidarity. Humans banding together to survive, whatever the cost. Civilians and soliders coming together for a cause. Old men, young men, mothers, nurses, weekend sailors. The British and the French.
If there’s no God or higher religious order to fill our spiritual void, the next best thing is the order of mutual benefit: humanity working together, in solidarity, to keep the species alive. It’s a message Nolan perhaps sees as urgent at a time when common ground and unifying purpose—like a national war effort—are hard to find.
“All we did is survive,” a young soldier says in Dunkirk after he returns home to England. “That’s enough,” responds an older man who greets him.
Mere survival isn’t military victory, of course, but Dunkirk isn’t a story about winning by beating the Nazis (we see none in the film). It’s strictly about the tenacity of surviving, of British survival specifically and human survival more generally. When faced with extinction, we’ll fight tooth and nail to survive.
What Makes a ‘Miracle’?
For Nolan, the “miracle” at Dunkirk is one of human resiliance, a sentiment echoed in Winston Churchill’s famous “We Shall Fight” speech, which culminates in the defiant, galvanizing words that also conclude Dunkirk: “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
These are inspiring words, to be sure, and in Churchill’s context likely words informed by an assumption of God’s guidance and a less naturalistic understanding of the miraculous. But for Nolan in Dunkirk, the words seem to function as a sort of secular liturgy in praise of the glories of man.
Can we can watch and appreciate Dunkirk for the masterpiece that it is, even if Nolan’s vision of human greatness makes no reference and offers no gratitude to God? Of course we can, just as we can marvel at Michelangelo’s “David” as a masterpiece of Renaissance humanism. These works of art bear witness to a Creator God both in how they’re created and in what they depict: the valor and dignity of God’s image-bearers, who fight to survive and sacrifice for others because the lives they steward are sacred.