I didn’t head into Dunkirk with the intention of writing about it. Then I was made to feel foolish by critics and film analysts telling me in no uncertain terms that I’d interpreted the movie entirely wrong. So with a single viewing under my belt, a hazy recollection of the intimate details, and an ego to shelter, I type here an assertion that the character who gets the most screen time, whose name you probably don’t know, is a German spy for the entire 106-minute stretch of the film.
About ten minutes in, the first of three supertitles appears onscreen—“The Mole.” In the minutes prior, our ostensible main character, Tommy (I don’t recall hearing that name spoken at any point), dressed in standard-issue British military garb, sprints and climbs out of reach of a hail of German gunfire, to a lone secluded spot on a beachhead otherwise populated by hundreds of thousands of stranded British soldiers. At this spot, he encounters a single fellow soldier burying a casualty and stealing its uniform. Tommy gives a solemn nod. The two make their way to busier part of the beach, picking up a stretcher with a wounded man on it along the way, and attempt to nudge through a long, dense line of desperate soldiers on a pier, where the lone rescue vessel is docked and on-loading #beleaguered Brits.
By the time the chyron appears, we, the American audience, understand: Tommy and the fellow he rendezvoused with are German spies—moles sent to infiltrate Britain, using the chaos of the Dunkirk evacuation as an easy opportunity to cross over undetected. We go on thinking this for the entire movie, as we should, because we know a mole when we see one. Then, if we’re me, we get home, satisfied at the viewing experience and our understanding of it, and want to read some background and other critiques. We learn that, to our embarrassment, “The Mole” wasn’t referring to any kind of spy, but the half-mile-long, exposed breakwater wall the Brits had to use to pile people onto the evacuation vessels, and that this is something any halfway educated Brit would know right off the bat. Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson, tries to make us feel okay about our blunder, but she says it right there in the headline: “Dunkirk’s mole isn’t a spy…” and boy, is there egg on our face.
As the weekend goes by and our shame dims, we think back and are vexed. Since when do we so readily take Christopher Nolan plotlines at face value? We’re an educated guy. We watch a lot of movies. We’re the analytical type. And “Tommy” sure seemed like a fucking spy to us. So we lay out our argument.
We’re considering the work of a director whose debut film unfolds backwards. Effectively. Remember the first time you saw Memento? Don’t even try to pretend you saw that coming the whole time. This man also gave us the ending to Inception (and hell, the beginning, middle and climax of Inception), never letting us see whether that goddamn top stopped spinning. And whatever was going on with the manmade fourth dimensional time-machine in Interstellar, it damn sure didn’t convey of message of “relax, it’s just a pier, dude.”
Based on Nolan’s background alone, our skepticism feels healthy and well rooted, and we dig into the Dunkirk itself, wishing we hadn’t been so distracted by the need to keep the shoveling of our Buncha Crunch into our faces at a respectful decibel level during the opening scenes. From the first scene, something’s fishy. German propaganda posters saying “We Surround You” are raining down on Tommy and a handful of other soldiers in British uniform. Tommy’s nonplussed about his circumstance, right up to the point that German gunfire starts cutting his non-speaking-part colleagues down and he starts running toward that beachhead. On the one hand, if he were a spy, why would the Germans shoot at him? On the other, why would your average infantryman know who and where their own spies were? Also note the seeming porousness of the line where he was, which suggests it would have been easy to sneak across to the enemy side.
When he makes his escape and runs into the soldier burying the casualty, notice that although there are bodies strewn all over the main part of the beach, this guy and the chap he’s burying are alone, away from the action. Tommy squats to relieve himself before seeing who I’ll argue is his fellow and giving him that nod of solidarity. But what in this scene makes a nod of solidarity appropriate? “Hey, we’re just two guys, not among the 400,000 that are on the other part of the beach, and you’re burying someone and taking his shoes. Here’s a nod of solidarity for you.” Doesn’t make sense.
By the time the two men pick up and bear the stretcher with the injured man and head toward the pier, it never occurs to us they might be primarily motivated to get the man aid, only that he’s a possible ticket onto the evacuation ship. They shove and elbow their way over a half-mile of pier, through thousands of waiting soldiers, and barely get to the ship in time, to cheers of nearby soldiers. They try to blend in once they’ve dropped off the injured man, but no dice. He needed to be evacuated right then, and they didn’t, so they’re sent to the back of the line. Tommy scans around for another way and spots his stretcher partner hiding, crouched among the pilings beneath the pier, ready to sneak aboard the ship. At stretcher partner’s urging, he joins. For two guys who are, at the time, the only of tens of thousands of soldiers that have been compelled enough by the horrors of war to cheat their way onto this ship, and who have never, as near as we can tell, spoken to each other, they’ve developed a stunning level of camaraderie in a very short time.
Before it can disembark, the ship is bombed to hell and sinks. Desperate soldiers are swimming all over, including one Harry Styles, who, after witnessing Tommy and his stretcher-bearer partner dunk themselves in the water to appear like they’d been on the ship all along, is the only character in the entire movie to ever suspect there’s anything strange going on with either of them. Harry, more than anything else, takes this jovially. Let’s pause here to recognize that, in the chaos of an exploding ship and drowning soldiers, our two suspects, desperate and afraid enough to sneak past thousands to get onto a ship “home,” had the composure to immediately take measures to blend into a scene that no military authority could rightfully be expected to keep track of anyway.
In time, another ship comes, and Tommy, stretcher-bearer partner, and Harry board. Harry acts like you’d expect a weary infantryman to act—scarfing down jam and toast and chugging tea. Tommy follows along with him, quietly, and—maybe I’m just paranoid here—appears to have a moment where he realizes he should be grabbing jam and toast, like everyone else is, and does, and eats it with no great haste or pleasure. Stretcher-bearer partner, meanwhile, skips out of line and avoids going below decks altogether. You can’t sneak anything past ol’ Stylesy though. Harry asks Tommy what the deal is, and Tommy explains stretcher-bearer partner wants to be topside in case they get attacked again, which, of course, they do.
But they survive! Again! And after wiling away a few days on the beach, they spot a small ship run aground just across the safe perimeter, and pile in with a group of other soldiers to investigate. The ship is empty but they can try to find its captain and wait for high tide to make it possible for them to cast off back to England. To cut this short, the captain arrives. He’s Dutch (I think), and more than willing to take them to safety once that tide rises. Tide rises right as German target practice bullets start finding their way into the ship, along with the seawater. Panic ensues. Harry finally plays his Trump card and announces that stretcher-bearer partner is a Jerry, and so he’ll be the one jumping out of the ship to draw German fire. Finally, right?
Then comes the part that film writers would have you believe clears everything up, and shows us that Tommy and friend were never moles—the only scene offering evidence that’s even interpretable as indicating these two aren’t spies. That evidence: They said so. Actually, only one of them said so. The guy in the dead man’s uniform finally cops to being not a German spy, but a French-speaking Frenchman, at gunpoint. Tommy, meanwhile, isn’t even accused. And that’s it. Oh, well, the guy who’s been sneaking around, stealing uniforms, skulking below piers and topside, is just some poor French bastard trying to escape the war. Now I’m no military tactical savant, but if I were a German commander, just maybe I’d send spies who spoke the languages of the enemies. Given the soldiers in the boat were in real danger of being shot, drowned or both, we’ll forgive them for not following up too closely on that lead. We’ll give no such quarter to film writers however.
If you take this explanation at face value, and you believe that “The Mole” is just referring to a manmade sea structure, that these two were just good guys trying to make it out, it’s understandable. It’s plausible. But Nolan continues prodding us. When Harry and Tommy finally make it back to English shores, they encounter a kindly old blind man handing out food. The blind man exchanges some encouraging words with Harry, but when Tommy walks by, he touches his face. Innocent enough, right? And poignant. But why? Nolan has a British man pass up the opportunity to caress Harry Styles’s supple boy band visage and instead inexplicably try to get a sense of what Tommy is about. Cut to the final scene: we’re on a train. Harry and Tommy are spent, Harry certain they’re going to be branded as cowards and failures. Though as far as we know, Tommy is in the midst of a successful mission. Then come the celebrations. Brits are trailing the train, passing out celebratory beers and newspapers and generally embracing the returning soldiers as heroes. But while Styles is pounding brews, Tommy is reading aloud a propagandistic article on how the Brits have showed their resilience, how they live to fight another day, and how that stiff upper lip will win them the war. Seeing all the cheering outside the train and taking in the message of the column, Harry looks encouraged. Boy band-like. Tommy just looks unsettled. Not just the look of a man unsettled by the overwhelming horrors of what he’s just been through, either. Unsettled like a man who’s now fully trapped in enemy territory with an opposition that doesn’t seem anywhere near as worn down and dejected as he’d expected.
So here’s the point: critics and writers could be right. It’s plausible that our moles were just a couple guys trying to get over. It’s the Occam’s Razor-sponsored explanation. The question though is, is it plausible Nolan went to all those lengths, and included all those little details, even after the supposed they’re-not-moles reveal, just to troll Americans on their ineptitude in the field of pre-U.S.-involvement World War II? No. Nolan, at the very least, wanted us to be thrown. Just because we’re not time-traveling or having Tesla build early-20th-century cloning machines in Dunkirk doesn’t mean everything is as it seems. Nolan has trained us better than that.