A Few Thoughts on Dunkirk

Dunkirk was not my favorite Christopher Nolan film (though it could become my favorite war film). After seeing it, I keep thinking about it and its meaning-making techniques.

A few of my favorite things:

1. Length: Reversing recent trends, Dunkirk is a crisp war film with limited special effects. Dialogue is laconic, but it doesn’t drag.

2. Narrative Technique: Headings immediately generate a narrative framework + represent a slick use of "story-time" + "discourse time."

3. Characters: There is not a readily identifiable lead character; though, the lone English soldier anchors the film (and his face bookends it). This seems to be part of the point. The main character = Dunkirk itself. The web of threads embody the confusion/chaos of the moment, the battle, war itself.

4. Characterization: While the story taps into a well-known historical WWII setting, it begins by only naming "the enemy" that presses in. This immediately renders the localized Dunkirk story into a form of parable; the soldier, the pilot, the father, the son, the leader. Another example, German forces are never actually seen + characterized as simply “the enemy." We only see their bullets + shadows;

5. Dueling Interpretations: At the end of the film, after the actual battle ends, the hermeneutical battle begins.

Churchill's rhetoric (infused with "meaning") clashes with the soldier's ("all we did was survive"); The blind man responds, "that's enough."

Is Churchill the blind man handing the soldiers aid after the battle but also an alternative interpretation of their experience?

The close of the film has a series of these clashes (e.g., what happens to the boy vs. what the paper says); the final one is visual: The last two scenes juxtapose a picture of self-sacrificial heroism (the burning plane behind enemy lines) with the confused expression on the face of the soldier

In my opinion, that soldier's expression maps to the spinning top that concludes Inception. Both endings leave the viewer still circling the hermeneutical spiral: What is real? Whose interpretation is correct? Whose rhetoric maps to reality?

The layered ambiguity of this sequence, of course, is evoked by the narrative itself. The film turns the chaos of Dunkirk into a text that we are forced to interpret.

And, as a text, it has the power to "stay with us" in a way unique to the medium.

Christopher Nolan
July 28, 2017


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