I arrived late to the theater for “Dunkirk” and walked in about two minutes after the movie began. Two minutes later, I was gnawing on my own knuckles. An hour and forty-five minutes later, the stress had not noticeably dissipated, even after the credits rolled: leaving the theater parking garage, a car one level above me rolled over the garage’s expansion joints with a rattling clank, and, inside my Honda, I ducked. Such is the visceral nature of Christopher Nolan’s first war movie: there are no breaks, no breathing room, and no downbeats. You will never feel safe—every moment not spent engaging in immediate struggle is spent bracing for the next wave of fatal disaster. It is an exhausting movie.
“Dunkirk” takes one tiny strip of air, land, and sky, and puts it under a jeweler’s loupe: wisely, the movie eschews maps, and scale models, and cuts to general’s quarters far away from the action. You spend the time crowded with the characters into punishingly tight spaces: fighter plane cockpits, boat hulls, the support struts of a jetty. Slowly, every space is crushed: the planes crash, the torpedoed boats collapse like tin cans in outer space, the jetty is bombed steadily into smithereens. Then, the water catches fire. There’s an element of “now what” in “Dunkirk”—things get bad, and then things get much worse, and then things get so mindbendingly awful that you cannot understand how anyone survived. Which is a fairly respectful way to approach war: Nolan certainly doesn’t make it look glorious or fun or sexy in any sense. War, here, looks like something you would run a hundred miles barefoot in a snow of shit to avoid. But “Dunkirk”’s PG-13 rating has hampered realism considerably, and to the movie’s detriment: as horrifying as the situation is, we see little of what has been done to the human bodies trapped within it. Bombs drop on humans on the beach, but the camera feints away from the resultant explosion; machine guns seam a crowd, but death occurs with a minimum of screaming, and none of the bargaining, fear, and agony that would humanize the dying. The movie tries to get us as close as it can to the terror, but the artifice hangs a lantern. A camera can look away from a screaming man, holding his guts in—but a real human, placed in the same spot, could not, and the camera’s avoidance of what we’re fascinated by, distances us emotionally. That’s a shame: there should be no distance from war in the movies. We should not be able to escape looking at the faces, the bodies, of the dying young. This shouldn’t be a PG-13 experience.
Now: an argument can be made, and clearly was successfully made, that by keeping the movie under an R rating, the moviemakers increase the number of people likely to see it, and thus absorb some aversion to warfare. However, that argument is given the lie when we come to the end of “Dunkirk” and hear Winston Churchill being quoted: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”. “Dunkirk” is not attempting to realistically show the horror of war; instead, it is—skillfully, artfully, beautifully—trafficking in the perennial nostalgia for the one war worth fighting. You can decide for yourself if we need a reminder of that.