Dunkirk is the first film Christopher Nolan has made that feels bigger than the director’s preoccupations and obsessions. There is something ironically liberating about this sprawling yet frequently claustrophobic war movie about soldiers trapped by the sea, crowded in long queues on a great concrete and wooden jetty waiting for ships, or hunkered in the bellies of destroyers, all awaiting the bullets or bombs that could rain down at any moment.
What is liberating is that the stakes and the difficulties are clear and the goal and burden of survival is shared by soldiers and civilians alike. The tangle of expedient or necessary lies under which characters in Nolan’s stories so often labor — skewing their perceptions of reality, meaning and even their own actions, pitting characters as much against themselves as against one another — is basically absent here.
The protagonist of Memento needs the lie he tells himself to construct heroic meaning amid crushing tragedy. The conspirators in Inception want their mark to find meaning in a lie he wrongly believes to be his own idea. The Prestige depicts characters finding meaning in a self-created deception imposed on everyone around them, even when it destroys their own lives. The Dark Knight culminates in the notion that the people of Gotham need a noble lie to give them hope.
If the wisdom of that last conceit was later cross-examined by The Dark Knight Rises, by the trilogy’s end the question whether ordinary people are capable in truth of rising to the challenge of saving themselves and each other still had no real answer.
Even when The Dark Knight Rises dropped hints of a popular uprising, Nolan seemed unable to pull it off. His latest, Interstellar, was equally pessimistic about the hoi polloi coming together to save the Earth; instead, mankind’s hopes rest on elite scientists solving the equations to evacuate the planet.
Is this partly why, of all the war stories he might have told, Nolan was drawn to the story of a battle whose very name became a catchphrase — “Dunkirk spirit” — for can-do solidarity and heroism uniting ordinary people responding to a shared crisis? Did he find in this renowned chapter of history something his fictional stories strained toward but couldn’t realize?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.