Dunkirk: Experience Preferred
Director Christopher Nolan immerses viewers in the harrowing Second World War evacuation of Dunkirk...
[The] mission: Retrace the choppy route from Dover, England, to Dunkirk and back.
At first glance, it’s hard to find a through line in the work of director Christopher Nolan.
From the innovative, chronic-memory-lapse mystery Memento, to the dark magician’s tale The Prestige, to the box-office juggernaut Dark Knight films, to the hallucinatory blockbuster Inception, to the vividly told, Oscar-nominated Dunkirk, his films have grossed nearly $5 billion US and received 34 Academy Award nominations. Along the way, each film has had a unique creative and existential fingerprint.
The easiest way to understand Nolan’s films is to consider them stories that are not so much told as experienced. We are passengers in Leonardo DiCaprio’s mind as his nightmares come to life like natural disasters in Inception. We follow Matthew McConaughey into a distant galaxy in Interstellar (which was praised for its scientific accuracy by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson).
And the remarkably self-contained Dunkirk — about the legendary mass evacuation of 400,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches of France in advance of the Nazi juggernaut — is itself the offspring of a personal experience.
Before production, the British-born Nolan (who has both U.K and American citizenship) hired a small boat with Emma Thomas, his wife and producer. (They’ve been together since they were students at University College London.) Their mission: Retrace the choppy route from Dover, England, to Dunkirk and back.
"...as kids we received this very simplified, almost mythic fairy tale version of what happened."
The original operation saw 800 private boats save the bulk of British forces to fight again — an act of mass heroism by ordinary people that might have saved Britain from invasion and helped win the war for the Allies.
“Like most British people, Dunkirk’s a story that I grew up with,” Nolan said at a Los Angeles news conference held to launch the film. “So, as kids we received this very simplified, almost mythic fairy tale version of what happened.
“But the particular experience Emma and I had a few years ago involved making the crossing with a friend who owned a small boat, in about the same time as it (took) back then. And the crossing was extremely difficult and very rough. It felt difficult and dangerous, and that was without people dropping bombs on us.
“I came away from that experience with respect and fascination for the people who’d taken on the evacuation. It was something I never quite understood, why a modern film hasn’t been made about it. Those are the kind of gaps I like to fill when I make a movie.
“It’s always been about finding a story I feel I can have an emotional connection with, that’ll sustain me through the years of making the film. I’m very single-minded. I can only do one thing at a time. I’m not very good at planning what I’m going to do next. So, if I’m going to dive in and concentrate on the film for usually two or three years, it has to be a story I’ll stay enthusiastic about.”
The remarkable thing about Nolan’s Dunkirk is that it was about the personal experience of battle, and only that. (You don’t even see a single Nazi soldier until one of the very last scenes, and then only peripherally.)
In a bid to maintain the experience, while communicating the vastness of the event, Dunkirk was divided into land, air, and sea stories.
In the first, singing star Harry Styles portrays one of the soldiers who attempt to board boats that keep being sunk. The air narrative follows two Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) trying to draw German bombers away from the men below. And at sea we meet a middle-aged man (Mark Rylance) and his son, who rescue a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) from a sunken boat.
“What I was hoping to gain was a way of maintaining a subjective storytelling but still maintaining an overview of the big story,” Nolan said. “Everything is intended to be subjective. You want it to be on the beach, with these guys, seeing events from their point of view. But you also want to see the bigger picture from the air, which requires the view of a Spitfire pilot.
“And then you’re on the sea, with people coming to help with the evacuation. What you don’t want is for the audience to step out of the experience. I avoided scenes with generals in rooms with maps. I didn’t want to give the audience knowledge that the characters in the movie didn’t have, other than through the interaction of these three stories.”
Large budget (about $100 million US) notwithstanding, Nolan likes to create a tactile experience on his set. Rylance recalled: “He would be rocking the boat by hand outside of camera range. He was very observant of what was organically happening.”
Styles, whose performance represented a major leap out of his teen idol straitjacket, recalled that the environment Nolan created was so realistic that it practically didn’t require him to act. “Chris kind of creates this world around you where you don’t have to act too much. A lot of it is reacting. You don’t overthink it. Chris puts it to you in terms of saying what you need to say and doing what you need to do.”
True to his vision, Nolan says that very little of what he films ends up being discarded. Hence, his DVDs generally don’t have “deleted scene” features.
“I have a great editor (Lee Smith, who has worked on most of Nolan’s films) and we find a way to stuff more and more into the sausage. We don’t tend to leave anything on the cutting room floor.
“In Insomnia (a 2002 movie with Al Pacino and Robin Williams), we have two deleted scenes on the DVD. After that, I took the view of trying to make all the editing decisions on the page.
“Making films is hard. And you’ll do anything to not shoot something if you don’t have to.”
Jim Slotek is a Toronto movie critic and freelance entertainment journalist.