Culture History

on Dunkirk, a masterpiece

I saw Dunkirk last night, in IMAX — the way you, too, should see it. Because it is one of the best movies I have ever seen, and it deserves to be seen at the proper scale.

Christopher Nolan’s greatest work is technically ambitious, riding a spare script and largely anonymous cast to create a movie of incomparable intensity that delivers a powerful emotional payload.

I can’t stop thinking about it. I haven’t, in fact, since I left the theater last night. So I’m going to write down some stuff about it, and see where that gets me.


My favorite style of painting is impressionism. (Sometimes, I phrase this belief of mine as “the only good kind of art is impressionist” — but I’m trying to be more inclusive.)

A great Monet painting captures the beauty of reality, despite not striving to capture reality down to the finest detail. Through abstraction, we see the greater truth.


I think that’s what Nolan is doing in Dunkirk.

One of the first things I noticed is that the lighting in scenes — particularly in those set on Dunkirk beach — is often inconsistent from shot to shot. A scene that begins under heavy cloud cover might then be bathed in hazy sunlight or feel more like dawn.

This felt, initially, like a practical choice, given the difficulties of shooting on actual beaches with minimal computer-generated effects. However, on reflection this feels more like an intentional choice by Nolan. He’s aiming to capture a feeling — the disorientation of being stuck on a beach, waiting for either deliverance or death — and inconsistencies in lighting only heighten that feeling.

Throughout the movie, Nolan chooses ambiguity over detail. I could not tell you the name of a single character, and a quick pop over to IMDB informs me that some major characters are literally unnamed — Cillian Murphy’s character is called “Shivering Soldier.” Somehow, this choice works (which I’ll talk about more in a couple of paragraphs).

There’s almost no mention of military strategy or tactics, or the relative positions of the Germans and the British. Instead, Nolan keeps it simple. The British are surrounded, and the unseen Germans are going to destroy them all if they don’t evacuate.

All we’re given to go on is the three-part structure, each with its own timeframe — the beach (one week), the sea (one day), and the air (one hour). The timeframes are never purely in sync. The one moment, late in the movie, that we see from all three angles is not shown in cross-cut, but rather from one perspective at a time.

What we get, instead, are impressions. We get disorientation. We get fear. We get tension — more tension, frankly, than most of us can handle — followed by some of the most powerful moments of catharsis I’ve felt in a motion picture.

Like a great Monet, the impressions are more powerful than reality could ever be.


The most common criticism of Dunkirk, upon reading some critics and IMDB commenters, focuses on the characters. One reviewer stated: “as a film it lacks emotional firepower due to the absence of a strongly written protagonist […] it’s impossible for this film to not feel cold and empty.”

To start with, I was crying at the end, so clearly some people don’t find it cold and empty. And maybe it’s unfair to go after a reviewer who gave Batman v Superman: Punching in the Rain seven out of ten stars.

But let’s parse this “strongly written protagonist” nonsense.

If I were being completely uncharitable, I would suggest that “strongly written protagonist” in this review is standing in for the desire for a “heroic” character. A man — a strong man — a strong man with a big-ass gun who kills lots of Germans despite overwhelming odds. Maybe he has a wife at home, or a kid, or some other emotional attachment that makes hims “strongly written.” Maybe he has some really obvious flaw that leads to some sort of comeuppance late in the second act, followed by third act redemption. Wow. So strongly written.

Nolan is doing something more subtle than that here, something that adds to the deeper meaning of the story.

Dunkirk, fundamentally, is about survival in the face of overwhelming odds, the things the need to survive does to people, and whether survival can be a victory in its own right.

Each of the characters wants to survive because they’re human beings. Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles’s impossibly young soldiers, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden’s flying aces, Mark Rylance’s ordinary sea captain, and Murphy’s shellshocked soldier aren’t supposed to be special in any way, or in some way marked by their past or their relationships. They’re just people in an impossible situation trying to work their way out of it, reacting in different ways.

You see them struggle, throughout the movie, with choices. Do I try to sneak on this medical boat? Do I kill a young man who doesn’t speak English? Do I keep flying even as my fuel has started to run out? And so on. Their actions, even when not expressed through words reveal more about their characters than a small Polaroid of a young English lass in Hardy’s cockpit ever could. There’s no fact we could have learned about their past — save a perfectly dropped detail about Rylance’s character — that would have improved their character arc. That’s the mark of a strongly written protagonist.

Again, Nolan is using these stories to build to a more general truth, a broader moment of catharsis.

He paints in broad strokes, sure. But they’re strong strokes.


My grandfather, Peter G. Andrews, was in the Royal Navy in 1940 — the year Dunkirk takes place.

Originally stationed upon the HMS Edinburgh, he was there when that ship was sunk by torpedoes in 1942.

Though he passed away in 2014, I still remember his story about the sinking. Forced to jump from his ship to a neighboring ship, over the frozen North Sea, his main consideration was to not end up with two broken legs. After making the jump, and finding his legs unbroken, he realized his mistake.

He had had enough time to fetch his heavy winter coat before the Edinburgh sank — and now, on a ship near the Arctic Circle he would be very cold.

I’m, of course, paraphrasing a bit. But he always told the story with the sort of nonchalance and dry British wit that characterized all of his stories. Maybe seventy years of hindsight will give that to you.

What you don’t always feel, in the stories and even in many war movies, is a sense that you are just a microscopic part of something bigger. War is basically too big for any one of us to actually comprehend. Instead, we’re left with the small moments of personal victory — of triumph and sacrifice, maybe, but also just staying alive for long enough to tell your story.

Dunkirk somehow captures that feeling, and it’s a function of Nolan’s impressionistic choices in both style and character. (It’s also, of course, down to a team of fantastic collaborators that are outside the scope of what I want to talk about here, but particularly Hans Zimmer’s score and Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography stand out as contributions that deserve little gold statues next February).

That’s why the end — which I won’t discuss in detail — hit me so hard. The end is triumphant, as the story of Dunkirk has always been in the British national mythos, but it’s also intimate and personal. The feeling of relief that the characters feel as they drink a cup of tea — the same feeling that the audience feels that the gunfire has finallystopped — is universal.

It’s how my grandfather might have felt. It’s how any one of us might have felt.

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.

Peter G. and Peter F. Andrews, approximately 1995.