Released to theaters within just a few months of each other, DUNKIRK and THE DARKEST HOUR present an historical event inside-out and outside-in. Framed in the timespan of a few weeks in May, 1940, Operation Dynamo’s mass evacuation of the embattled Dunkirk beaches that played a key role in Britain’s resistance to the Nazi invasion is a subject viewed from the outside looking in (DUNKIRK) and from the inside looking out (THE DARKEST HOUR). Aided by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, Christopher Nolan’s treatment is all vast spaces, on land, sea, and in the air. Armadas of ships, planes, and sailors race toward a last-minute rescue of the 350,000 embattled British troops. It’s an opera, proclaimed loudly on a vast stage. Joe Wright’s version, assisted by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, is an interior vision of narrow corridors, sealed offices, and secure war rooms. It’s a claustrophobic chamber drama in hushed voices in cramped spaces. It wreaks a miracle of its own—Churchill’s inspiring message of resistance, not capitulation.
Winston Churchill in the first is only a voice heard in the final minutes on the radio. In the second, Church himself (Gary Oldman) delivers the message in the crowded chambers of Parliament. The soundtrack of the first is punctuated by explosions of bombs and cannonfire; in the second, it is counterpointed by the quiet tap-tap-tapping of secretarial typewriters.
Each has its share of unlikely civilian heroes—Mark Rylance’s grim determination on the open sea to avenge his dead son in DUNKIRK; and a cry of resistance by passengers in a crowded subway car in THE DARKEST HOUR.
What do we make of these two visions of a single event? Taken together, they book-end an event with a comprehensiveness and a complexity denied to either alone. Each hardly exists without the other. Ideally, they should be screened together, with perhaps a breather in between. Their great, collective message is that History is a chronicle told in both shouts and whispers. History places figures in landscapes and situations of release and confinement, action and stasis, silences and words, resolution and ambiguity.
Somewhere in between is our best chance to understand the mysteries of is happening all along in the storied world in which we live.