PREVIEW: Dunkirk Promises a Story of Hope Told Through the Eyes of a Genius

There are times in life when two things that have no business being perfect for each other come together and just fit, silencing the naysayers and, in the best examples, giving the world hope. So it is with sci-fi director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception, Interstellar) and the story of the evacuation of nearly 400,000 British and French soldiers from the tiny seaport of Dunkirk near the beginning of WWII. The film is titled simply Dunkirk.

Disclosure: I have not yet seen the film. But I am beside myself excited at the prospect of it because I know both the work of the director and the story of Dunkirk (and the fact that it is receiving almost breathless and rave reviews doesn’t dampen my excitement).

The story of Dunkirk itself is literally legendary. It’s the kind of war story the ancient Greeks would have memorialized in epic form and retold over generations until someone finally thought to write it down. It tells the tale of 400,000 soldiers trapped by the sea and cut off from their larger force by a stronger and fiercer advancing army, in this case the German army, seeking world domination. More to the point, it is a story of how nearly all of them were evacuated and survived — helped in large part by civilians with pleasure yachts and fishing boats called to take advantage of the German hubris that slowed the assault because they believed the battle was already won.

History.com has a rundown of the particulars:

On May 26, [1940] the British began to implement Operation Dynamo—the evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk. The next day, the Allies learned that King Leopold III of Belgium was surrendering, and the Germans would soon resume their attack on Dunkirk.

By then, the British had fortified their defenses, but they knew the Germans would not be held off for long, and the evacuation at Dunkirk was escalated. As there were not enough ships to transport the huge masses of men stranded near the beaches, the British Admiralty called on all British citizens in possession of any sea-worthy vessels to lend their ships to the effort.

Hundreds of fishing boats, pleasure yachts, lifeboats, ferries and other civilian ships of every size and type raced to Dunkirk, braving mines, bombs, torpedoes and the ruthless airborne attacks of the German Luftwaffe.

Civilians should not have been successful in their attempts against the brutal German forces, particularly the armored divisions and the Luftwaffe patrolling the skies.

Yet they were. In the end, over 330,000 of the original 400,000 survived. And, as History.com notes, “These experienced troops would play a crucial role in future resistance against Nazi Germany.”

Then there’s our modern Homer telling the tale of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan, an exceptional filmmaker but one who has mostly dabbled in the nearly supernatural with his tales of a bat man as a Dark Knight and travels through space and time. Yet here he is, telling a visceral story, very real and unabashedly natural: the blood and guts and survival and death of war.

It shouldn’t work. But early reports are that it very much does:

Take away the film’s prismatic structure and this could be a classic war picture for the likes of Lee Marvin or John Wayne. And yet, there’s no question that the star here is Nolan himself, whose attention-grabbing approach alternates among three strands, chronological but not concurrent, while withholding until quite late the intricate way they all fit together. Though the subject matter is leagues (and decades) removed from the likes of “Inception” and “The Dark Knight,” the result is so clearly “a Christopher Nolan film” — from its immersive, full-body suspense to the sophisticated way he manipulates time and space — that his fans will eagerly follow en masse to witness the achievement. And what an achievement it is!

Perhaps the prestige (or the reveal, with a nod to my favorite of his films, The Prestige) is that some things, apparent opposites though they are, like the yin and the yang, actually are one in the same. And Nolan exemplifies that duality. His films are visually dark and bleak and yet infused with a light of intellect and humanity that is the stuff of debate on message boards for film nerds years after the film’s release.

One of the taglines for Dunkirk is “Hope is a weapon.” Those two things shouldn’t fit together. But anyone who’s been cut off from their resources facing a much stronger enemy with depleted weapons and no way out knows that they do. They have to if one is to survive.

My guess is that’s the story Nolan tells here.