Up the Beach
Dunkirk is Brexit as fuck. On paper, the plot celebrates how a bunch of old white people from the South Coast saved the youth of Britain from the ruin of Europe, which would certainly explain the laudatory Nigel Farage tweet, the indelible image of him solemn in front of a poster, standing ramrod, National-Front-straight like he’s got a Trump-branded love egg thrumming blandishments to his prostate.
It’s the story of turning a self-inflicted defeat into a Pyrrhic, survival-is-victory; it’s a celebration of proper, British-made technology – Spitfires with Rolls Royce engines; scratchy hand-woven turtlenecks – the kind of which we don’t get anymore because Brussels has mandated that everything has to be made in China, or something.
Except none of it works. Again and again, Christopher Nolan hits you with close-up shots of this brilliant engineering failing hard: guns jamming, cockpits failing to open, impregnable naval hardware taking catastrophic damage. Britain is rubbish: the best “safety” it can offer its abused servicemen is mugs of hot tea and platters of jam and bread; when its military heroes get home, they are welcomed by more bread, more tea – plus room-temperature bottles of beer and Cornish bloody pasties. It’s all shit.
I have no nostalgia for the Great Britain summoned by Dunkirk, and I don’t think Christopher Nolan does either. He is unstinting in his focus on the sheer relentless hell of war, but in his reluctance to present the other side of the story – you never see so much as a German face – he suggests something else, too: life is hard enough as it is. Deep water will still drown you, even when you’re not at war; banging your head after a fall down the stairs will, too. There are enemies that can shoot at you, but the worst damage (like getting stuck on that beach in the first place) is self-inflicted. Life is a conspiracy against the living; we should celebrate being alive, now, when stuff works and we get the benefits of global trade, knowledge-sharing, innovation – rather than back then, when preventable death encompassed everything from everyday disease to crusty old Tories back in Whitehall fucking up and condemning thousands of young men to die on a spit of French sand.
Dunkirk functions as a love-letter to modern technology – specifically, modern film-making technology – and its ability to master the world around us. It features some absolutely striking, beautiful wide-angle shots – many involving Tom Hardy’s Spitfire; plenty others knee-deep in the scummy foam washing up on the beach itself – as well as a litany of short, sharp cuts that present war in its sensory totality. I haven’t seen another film capable of instilling genuine anxiety purely through the shrill inhuman scream of a German dive-bomber; or that reflects the tininess – and disposability – of a single human life in the context of landscapes and army battalions.
It’s still not a great film. Nolan is first and foremost a superlative unspooler of plot; all the messing about with timelines in the world can’t disguise what is a linear narrative almost entirely lacking in jeopardy – in which all the drama must come from your engagement with the characters. But Nolan’s movies also have an intellectual, slightly detached quality: as though he’s thinking about what it means to be human, rather than getting into the viscera and living it. With a mind-bending puzzle-box like Inception, this is a perfect match; in a film where the emotional payoff at the end demands you have some investment in the characters, it doesn’t quite work. One close-up aside, this is a literally bloodless film – compare the beach-bombing with the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan – and whilst you still get a very real sense of carnage, it’s never focused enough on individual bodies to make it tangible. We see the tininess of the individual body, and its vulnerability in the context of a world that wishes to do it harm – but another film-maker would have made us feel that harm, too.
Perhaps this is deliberate, though. Dunkirk has become so storied that the mere act of invoking it today – “the Dunkirk spirit” – is to overlook a whole host of more pedestrian and personal (and, inconveniently, more accurate) realities; to leave things both unfelt and unsaid. The schoolboy “hero” who really did nothing of note, and died at the hands of a man likely traumatised for life. The “hero” pilot – probably the most uncomplicatedly, genuinely heroic of the characters on show in this film – who finishes the film in enemy hands, while nasty self-serving Harry Styles gets a pint and a Ginsters. The “heroes” of the evacuation itself: scared boys willing to try anything to get on a vessel out of there, including sending an ally to his death to save their own skin. The shoddy flotilla of janky pleasureboats in contrast to Britain’s vaunted and defeated naval might; Hans Zimmer’s nervy spastic score that swells from time to time into a parody of Elgar and Dvorak that does not feel earned. This, ultimately, is where Nolan’s cold, desaturated palette takes us: a laying-bare of the tawdry, daily reality of struggle and suffering, rather than a big-picture, rose-tinted-glasses, rearviewmirror mythologisation of the net effect.
To celebrate Dunkirk is to celebrate something that never happened – to celebrate a nasty mess where we somehow came out with the least-worst outcome, only for it to be recast by a political institution desperate for good press, and trumpeted as a genuine success.
Like I said: Brexit as fuck.