You’d think that Dunkirk, a World War II epic about the Allied evacuation of the eponymous beach as German forces closed in, just might be the first opportunity for Christopher Nolan to crack through the three hour run time barrier. He’s been flirting with it for some time, with both The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar clocking in at about 2:50. It’s been a long time since his first feature, Following, barely qualified as such by clocking in at a svelte 69 minutes. Since then, as Nolan has become perhaps the gold standard for the thinking man’s blockbuster through his Batman trilogy and original projects like The Prestige and Inception, he’s been given the freedom to let his run times swell. And when you think about some of the most famous war films, whether it’s the Bridge on the River Kwai (2:41), Saving Private Ryan (2:49), The Thin Red Line (2:50) or Schindler's List (3:15), there’s a well-established history of World War II films taking their time to tell their story of the Great War.
It’s safe to say that neither Nolan nor war films are particularly known for their brevity.
It may come as a bit of a shock, then, when Dunkirk’s credits roll at just barely over an hour 45. That’s a full hour shorter than Nolan’s last two films, and on the face of it, the opposite of what might be expected. But the reason I harp on the run times of these films and the expectation audiences may have lies in how important Dunkirk’s running time is to its success as a film. This is very much a small sliver of the actual conflict, beginning at its end with harried soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), running from Axis rifle fire until he reaches the beach, finding columns of British soldiers waiting for a ride across the English Channel back home. They’re sitting ducks on the beach, with no cover and no respite from relentless German fighter planes strafing their easy targets; all they can do is hope they don’t get hit this time. Attempting to quell the aerial assault are two Allied fighters, Farrier (Tom Hardy, his voice once again muffled behind a flight radio) and Collins (Jack Lowden), dog fighting their way across the skies, shooting down Germans before they can decimate the beaches. The evacuation effort, overseen by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh, steely-eyed and jaw-clenched as ever), is hobbled, as the Navy ships are too large a target for the Germans, too easily sunk as they crawl across the Channel toward freedom. The Britons take matters into their own hands, as a legion of small, private vessels join in the effort, hoping their low profile evades the wrath of the Axis forces. One particular boat, helmed by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, as wonderful as ever) with his two sons (Barry Keoghan and Tom Glynn-Carney) finds a marooned soldier en route (Cillian Murphy), who is not remotely interested in returning to the beach that he almost escaped, even if it means abandoning his fellow soldiers.
These three frames of reference have their own personal timelines, with events weaving and reweaving through each side of the rescue effort. We’ll see Farrier shoot down a plane from the sky, only to see the exact same scene play out from Dawson’s boat fifteen minutes later. It is disorienting at first, but once it becomes clear what Nolan’s script is trying to accomplish, that sense of confusion ends up reflecting the chaos on the beach. The human element of it all is clearly the focus, with the threat befalling the men on the beach hidden behind faceless aircraft. There are no German faces in the entirety of Dunkirk; their aggression is abstract and impersonal. It’s all about the men on the beach, in the boats and in the air. We don’t spend all that much quality time with them; there’s no space for that. We sense who they are from their actions and nothing else, no flashbacks or backstories (this isn’t Unbroken). It puts extra pressure on the actors to bridge that gap themselves, especially what it can become so difficult to tell the soldiers apart from one another as their faces and uniforms are systematically caked in blood and dirt and oil. It’s another vector for Dunkirk’s goal of pure and total disorientation
Cinematographer Hoyt Van Hoytema continues to be a more than capable replacement for long-time Nolan DP Larry Fong, and in his second collaboration with the director, he reaches new heights in cataloguing the beauty and horrors or war. Working within his washed out, ocean-y palette of blues and greens, Van Hoytema paints a stark picture of the beach, a sea of humanity against a sea of water. The sound design is as punishing as Hans Zimmer’s score, combining for a symphony of bullets and explosions and rolling waves and paranoid strings. DUNKIRK is an astonishingly loud and punishing film, one that would almost benefit from earplugs if your theater’s sound is particularly robust. It’s all by design; Nolan’s mastery of tone and tension has never been greater than it is here. It's exhausting and stressful in all the right ways, almost impressionistic in its painting of the beach and the water as a battlefield and a prison.
This is a lean, muscular monster of a picture, the opposite of what we’ve come to expect from Nolan as a blockbuster filmmaker. Nary a second is wasted, with the bullets flying within minutes of the opening titles and the action never stopping for nearly the entirety of the 105 minutes. It is a remarkably stressful experience, between the sound design and the unrelenting mayhem, the constant push/pull as these soldiers catch fleeting glimpses of freedom and safety only to have it callously ripped from them at the last moment. We assume a happy end is coming, but who gets to benefit from that happy end is always at risk. And whether they can even benefit from that happy end is its own question; an ordeal on the level of Dunkirk is not something that is easily shaken off, even by the most hearty of men.