As good a place as any to die

Dunkirk is not a war movie. It’s a movie about staying alive in the places between the world, a kinder of Stranger Things set in the strange space between France and England. This is why there are a million reviews comparing it to Brexit (or saying it has nothing to do with Brexit). Of course it has nothing to do with Brexit, because it’s about an entirely different kind of catastrophe, the catastrophe of young men – themselves still embedded in a kind of in-between place, not yet adults but no longer children – being forced to survive in a space outside of human experience, created by humans and populated by humans but having nothing in common with everything we know as we grow up human. This movie attempts to depict war as a kind of empty, in-between place, where death and struggle are everything to the people trapped in that space, but the broader metaphysics of its structure are unknown and unknowable.

Aside from a few moments at the beginning, where we see the main character of the movie pushed out of the normal human world and onto the beach, and the last few minutes when he returns to a normal railway siding in England[1], this entire world happens in in-between spaces. There are long scenes on the beach, as soldiers wait helplessly for evacuation; scenes in the air, as fighter pilots completely cut off from home do battle with unknowable enemies in empty spaces between the countries; scenes in the water, as the small boat goes about its difficult work on the channel; and scenes at the surface of the sea, between deadly deep blue death and the open sky, as soldiers struggle to stay alive after their sole chance to escape this horrible purgatory is suddenly and horrifically sunk. Everything happens in the Upside Down, trapped between the world we know and hell, or fighting to get out of the gap between France and England. Occasionally we hear people yell names of places, like stone markers in the void – “out of Dartmouth!” – but mostly we are lost in this tiny slip of water and beach and deadly sky, trying to find our way back.

The scenes in the air, in particular, are like battles in the Astral Plane. Is Christopher Nolan a D&D player? We have these two adventurers, flying through a vast blue space, fighting faceless demons that come out of nowhere, going to a specific mission in a far place somewhere abstract inside that blue vault. They are tied to their origin by a thin silver cord, in this case the fuel in their tank, which gives them just 40 minutes of combat time over their destination. Any mistakes, any deviations, any conflict they aren’t expecting, and they risk snapping that thin silver cord and being lost in the blue. Crashing out here means a slow, awful death in nowhere, unless another Astral traveler – one of those small boats “out of Dartmouth” – happens upon you in that vast, empty limnal space between the worlds. We watch people fall slowly and gracefully out of that sky, their power in the Astral plane broken, and we know they are gone forever, slowly and horribly. One person disappears without any word as to how or why. We’re out of time and place, trapped between the worlds, and these things happen. No one comments on it, and the mission continues.

The sense of dislocation is heightened by the arbitrariness of death in this cruel space. No one here wins by being brave or decisive – death happens in a moment, out of nowhere, or comes screaming down out of the sky and there’s nothing you can do except crouch down and hope it misses you. This is not a war of brave men and heroes, but of ordinary men trapped in horrific circumstances, hoping that the terror will fall on someone else. Even their grift is meaningless – our hero and his French mate find a man on a stretcher and run him to a ship, hoping to get on board and escape with the ship, but as soon as their hapless charge is on the deck they are booted off because there is no room for worthless people. But then they watch as the ship is sunk by a random Stuka, and their lucky break and the cunning scheme that followed is revealed to be just another lottery, that this time they fortunately didn’t win. There is no working this scene, no winning, just the random luck of death or salvation. This limnal space has its own logic, and its own justice, and watching this movie we know we aren’t here to understand it or change it, just to witness it.

This emptiness and arbitrariness lends the movie what to me is its most powerful political message: a story about war as a destroyer of ordinary lives, and the importance of remembering that it is ordinary people who suffer in war. Most of the people in this movie don’t have names – they line up like ants on the beach, they die when the Stukas come, they flee on ships and die when the Heinkels come, they hide in abandoned boats and die randomly for no reason at all, and all the time we understand that they are just ordinary people with no special story or purpose. This sense of war as destroyer of ordinary people is reinforced with the few scenes that connect us to the world outside the channel. The boy in the rescue boat who dies was always a loser at school, and had no special future or dreams; the navy men watch as the rescue boat slides away, no navy men on board, almost dismissive of the efforts of the captain and his crew, strangely uncaring that he has left without his navy attachment; no one believes the small boats will survive in the war zone; when our hero returns to England he gets no fanfare and speeches, but a bottle of brown ale through the window of his train and a simple cheer from a few people on the platform[2]. Even Churchill’s speech is not read by Churchill, but by a boy returning from war, who strips it of all of its import and reads it as if it were a simple statement of narrative fact. There is no moment in this movie where we see the war or the policies that drive the war through the eyes and voice of anyone except a normal, ordinary British person, who of course had no control over the course of political events that led to this nightmare and has no control over the policy that will throw him back into it. There is only one officer in the whole film, and he does nothing to convey the views of the higher-ups except their desperation in the face of the catastrophe unfolding in France. This is a war movie about how ordinary people struggle and die, not a movie about glory, heroism or leadership. Of course there are other war movies that purport to do this, but Dunkirk doesn’t have the sensational gory violence of Saving Private Ryan, or the cruel authoritarianism of Letters from Iwo Jima, stripping the war of all that gore and higher purpose and reducing it to these people trapped in the in-between, looking for a way out.

This kind of work would be a boring two hours’ struggle if it weren’t for a few elements that keep the film going and make sure you the viewer stay on the edge of your seat. The plot is a carefully layered series of interlocking stories that only meet near the end and keep you guessing where you are and what is happening all the way along, without gotchas and without detracting from the overall purpose of the movie. The soundtrack is beautiful and nuanced and carefully balanced to keep you engaged with both the tension and the beauty of the setting, which is very well filmed. The sounds of the sudden violence are also visceral and gripping – the Stukas are especially alarming but the sounds of water and the particular noises of sinking ships, the ticking clock, the horrible sound of the Heinkel’s cannon and the strangely unreliable sputter of Spitfire engines are all designed to keep you on edge and completely engrossed in the experience of being trapped in this world between worlds. The only normal sounds here are men’s voices and our men don’t speak much – and when they do it’s often to tell someone to fuck off, to get off their boat, to get out of their way, to turn around, to stop. It’s one of those movies where the soundtrack, the sound effects, the acting and the setting all work together to produce a powerful and absorbing epic.

If you are into survival horror this is definitely a movie you should watch, and if you’re into classic stories of heroism in war it’s probably not going to appeal. It also won’t work for people who looking for trenchant critiques and political statement. But if you want to see a movie that grabs you at its start, drags you out of your world into a strange other dimension, keeps you tense and terrified until the end, and at least shares a little hope with you in its last breaths, then this is definitely worth seeing. And for its soundtrack and sound effects you need to see it in the unrestrained setting of a large and powerful cinema. It is a beautiful movie with a powerful message subtly delivered, and a unique addition to the war movie genre, and it stands alone in that genre for its unique artistic intensity. An epic achievement by Christopher Nolan, and I heartily recommend it.

Picture note: The photograph is by Morgan Maassen, who I follow on Instagram. If you’re looking for someone to add to your feed I definitely recommend him. Also Tomoka Fukuda and all the free diving instagram accounts related to either of these people.

fn1: Spoiler alert! Most of the soldiers get evacuated by a fleet of small ships.

fn2: This is a simple and yet very moving scene, which leads to him reading Churchill’s speech in the newspaper. It indicates a determination to separate the fates of the men depicted in the movie from any of the great political debates surrounding the key events of the war – very different to a Vietnam or Gulf war movie, which will always have some reference to its own unpopularity buried there.