Dunkirk

Dunkirk ★★★★★

All we did is survive.
That's enough.

With what I’m sure will become an infamous reaction from Quentin Tarantino at Cannes set aside, I’ve been thinking more so about how Margot Robbie gracefully took the question with poise and intellect, recognizing how her lack of lines didn’t diminish the depth of her character. That her body, her actions, and the culmination of the two was a powerful agent of characterization. I have yet to see Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, so whilst I can’t attest to whether her statement holds true in regards to the film (though from what I’ve heard it’s unfortunately not promising), I can say that Christopher Nolan proves that characterization does not have to be at the behest of dialogue. That characters can be fully-realized through both actions and acting alone. That particularly, the brilliance of Tommy, the young soldier eager to escape Dunkirk along with the rest stranded on the beach, is not only a testament to Fionn Whitehead’s acting but every single choice that Tommy makes, spearheaded not only by an unparalleled survival instinct but the desire to live.

There is no hero.” It’s a tagline phrase repeated throughout the entirety of the Dunkirk press junket. There’s an inherent, communal bond to be found in survival, hostility shared with and against one another, the decision to help or not to help as arbitrary as a flip of a coin. Yet, Nolan still gives us one soldier to align ourselves with, and he is special. Even if you are viewing him as another man too young to possibly comprehend the brutalities of war and desperately just trying to survive, likening him to the masses of other soldiers awaiting rescue is impossible, purely because he has been chosen by Nolan, and therefore chosen by us to be the object of our gaze (and admittedly in my case, affections). While by no means a hero, he is free of some of the overtly antagonistic traits that Alex (Harry Styles) uses as a means to survive. Tommy graces the audience with an individuality that we can sink our teeth into if we so choose, every action rich with characterization that distinguishes himself against the explicit tropes that could cheaply align him either as the man willing to do anything to survive, which we see Alex begin to embody, or the boy with a moral compass that never falters. He balances beautifully between the two, never slipping to one side or the other. The young man straddling the line between survival and morality sets him up to be anyone, which is meaningful as it’s own theme, but anyone can be boring. While minimal dialogue can be an indicator of character itself, it’s the actions that are given agency in characterization and identity-forming. And, while the choices that Tommy makes are heavily influenced by the ever-imminent threat of dive bombs and death, the consistency with which Tommy asserts in his decision-making process, makes for one of the most gorgeous, nuanced character studies that I could think about forever.

Whereas Alex adopts a carnal hostility in order to survive, Tommy is far more careful. He looks ahead not only to a future where he is alive, but a future where he will be able to live. He thinks ahead to a time where he will be able to reconcile with what he has done and what he has experienced. Tommy thinks of the future and while it dons the air of a boyish naiveté, it is possessed with an intellect that keeps him alive. It’s what fuels him to search for the wounded on the beach with Gibson, to dunk his head underwater to give the illusion that he’d just jumped ship. His desire to make it home is at the expense of others even if it’s indirectly, which makes the suspense inducing scene where the soldiers are aggressively trying to force Gibson off the ship a climactic but anticipated moment in the film. It forces Tommy to acknowledge the actions he’s been making and the motives behind them. Nail-biting but not shocking, the progressive shift from action as a means of characterization to dialogue as the driving force is completely seamless. It isn’t stilted or random, because it confirms what we already know, because it is what we’ve already been shown.

“Fuck no. I’m going home.”
“And if this is the price?”
“I’ll live with it. But it’s wrong.”

If Tommy is balancing in the middle of a constant reconciliation of how to survive, it is Gibson and Alex who keep him stable. It is not only Tommy’s own actions that are integral to the substance of his character but Gibson and Alex’s who act as the perfect foils to Tommy’s survival. They’re two sides of the same coin and I find it fascinating how language and dialogue factor into their identities. Gibson is silent because he has to be, and as a consequence, is stripped of dialogue as a force that can lend to characterization. However, this alone isn’t what makes him suspicious, instead, it is the actions that Nolan equips Gibson with that differentiates him and further marks him as other. Gibson’s penchant for survival is like any other soldier’s, fettered with paranoia and overcautious behaviour. Yet it is his decision to stay outside of the destroyer and not join the others in the hold, in tandem with his silence that disallows him the same camouflage that Tommy benefits from. Unlike Gibson, silence doesn’t plague Alex, his dialogue almost excessive in comparison. He is braced by a suspicion that manifests in hostility and volatile words. It protects him as effectively as Gibson’s (albeit forced) silence does, and Tommy is left wielding both dialogue and action with an unparalleled intellect, a balance that effectively casts him as our protagonist.

Everything he does is informed by observation, a subtle but powerful trait that weaves an identity that propels him to the end, that allows for a dialogue that progresses from a perilous assertion that he’s going home, to an exasperated whisper that asks Peter to take him home. His silence is not blank but compensated by thoughtful observation, impulsivity often squandered in favour of taking a moment to recognize that the three bullets that shoot at the docked ship are the result of target practice, a threat no doubt, but not immediate. It’s the consistency and evident thought that goes into his character, bolstered by Fionn Whitehead’s terrific acting that forms someone rife with seamless parallels and distinct features that could otherwise be lost within the extensive number of characters in the film. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for small details, and one that struck me right in the gut were the audible whimpers that were heard the two times Tommy is struck by dive-bombs outside. With his head in the sand, or his entire body submerged underwater, his soft, childlike cries should, realistically, not be able to be heard. Perhaps that’s why they weren’t scripted. Yet the inclusion of them is a small, but heart-wrenching insight that, along with the numerous other details culminates into a brilliant character that has less than twenty-five lines.

Though I think it’s the moments of realization and reconciliation that Nolan taps into with both Fionn and Tommy. From the scene where Nolan steadies the camera on Tommy’s reaction as he’s left perched below the deck to find out that there are four hundred thousand men on the beach, where Nolan writes in his script “Tommy takes this in. Every man for himself,” to the final shot that closes with nothing more than a look. To end, I thought I’d share a quote from Nolan himself explaining why he chose to end the film with a shot of Tommy as opposed to the burning plane. It encapsulates everything I adore about Dunkirk, from (insert poetic description of Fionn Whitehead’s face), to Tommy, to a film, that at it’s core is uniquely human and small in spite of a war that is hard to imagine as anything other than completely catastrophic.

"The reason the film ends with the shot of Tommy rather than the shot of the burning plane, because it was scripted ending with the burning plane, which is an apocalyptic image - kind of things to come - but it’s a big image. And when I saw the dailies of Fionn reading the Churchill speech and then, at the end, he did this thing where he just, I don’t even know what he’s doing, but you want to end with this quiet moment with him, where no one’s paying attention to him and Alex is eating and drinking stuff the girls are handing through the window. It brings you back to this personal moment: he’s trying to process the words he’s just read from this very eloquent politician and trying to reconcile that with his experience."

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