Most of us, in one way or another, have encountered the Battle of Dunkirk. History class taught us that in 1940, during World War II, the British army was trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk in France. There, they managed to pull off a miraculous evacuation across the Channel, saving the majority of Allied lives. Perhaps our greatest exposure to the events of Dunkirk in recent times has been via Christopher Nolan’s film, “Dunkirk”, a story of survival that sends you right back to the beaches in 1940, one soldier among many.
While the film recounts the events of war, it is the opposite of a typical war story. The only background we receive is at the very beginning of the movie, and it is only the bare minimum. There are three lines that communicate the following: the enemy has pushed British and French troops to the sea, where they now wait on the beaches of Dunkirk, hoping for salvation. Then Nolan drops you right into the chaos as you follow three different components of Operation Dynamo, allowing for an all-around and utterly immersive experience, all in fractured time.
On land (one week), four hundred thousand men are trapped on Dunkirk Beach and a breakwater called “the mole”—which serves as a pier—surrounded by the enemy. They must, as Nolan said in an interview with NPR, face “the choice between surrender and annihilation.” We find our main boys, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Alex (Harry Styles), and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), here as they struggle to find a way off the beach. Nolan uses “Dunkirk” as a sort of time machine, leaving viewers on the shore to await their own fates.
You are the soldier trapped on the beach. You’re the one there alongside Tommy, Alex, Gibson, and all the other men amidst the shells, the gunfire, the cold, and the frigid ocean water hiding in fear, misery, unease, desperation, confusion, and sheer terror, all powerful emotions indeed. The lack of characterization in the movie is actually a blessing in disguise.
Just like the soldiers at Dunkirk then, you wouldn’t have known the backstories of all the people around you and you wouldn’t have cared. All you wanted to do was survive, even if that meant sacrificing others, a point made most clear by Alex during a pivotal moment on a rapidly submerging ship. He says to Tommy, “Survival’s not fair.”
From boat to boat you go, as our main characters do, but somehow you always find your way back to those dreadful sands, so close yet so far from home. Home. “You can practically see it from here,” says Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). And as the film’s tagline says, “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.”
Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and teenager George (Barry Keoghan) are at sea (one day). This fleet of civilian boats is the last Allied hope; the Allies will either retreat and live to fight another day or else be defeated. On the way to Dunkirk Beach, the three-man crew of the Moonstone rescues a shell-shocked “Shivering Soldier” (Cillian Murphy) and others.
In the air (one hour), Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins fly the skies, defending the beaches from Luftwaffe attack. Three British Spitfires provide a pivotal role in the evacuation. They, too, give hope to those on the ground. The soldiers cheer when the Spitfires appear above them. On the boats, Peter is ecstatic when the British planes shoot down another Luftwaffe plane.
All three plotlines are tied together flawlessly at the end, and throughout the film, details point to their interlocking nature. The triptych (or three-fold) timeline creates a sort of disorientation for us that contributes to our all-immersive experience and subtly shows us the horrifying effects of war on the human psyche.
The technical accomplishments of Dunkirk are laudable. It is shot entirely on Nolan’s preferred medium of IMAX 70mm film, providing a crisper, warmer, and more organic image. Few to no computer graphics are used; Nolan uses models and actual ships and planes, heightening the realistic quality of the film. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema once again collaborates with Nolan after also working with the director on Interstellar and creates another beautifully shot film. Hans Zimmer, a longtime composer for Nolan’s films, returns to fashion a soundtrack that alone would give anyone anxiety. Along with the visuals, it still gives the audience a base to their fears—in the best possible way, of course.
Dunkirk is, at its core, a survival story, a thriller. The Nazis are never named, or seen for that matter, and the bigger picture is never mentioned, making the film a lot less about a grandiose fight against fascism and a lot more about simply surviving to see the next day. It leaves you at the edge of your seat for the entirety of its 106-minute runtime.
Nolan, who also wrote the screenplay, rarely allows you a quiet moment during which you cannot hear the roar of the tools of war and their oceanic backdrop. Independent of Nolan and his crew’s talent, the cast did a wonderful job. The dialogue was kept to a minimum, and cast members communicated without the need for too many words. My personal favorites were newcomers Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard, who had only one line throughout the whole movie.
In Britain, “Dunkirk spirit” is a term known to many. It is used to describe the spirit of the British as they banded together to aid one another during this moment in history. Dunkirk reveals a uniquely Anglo-centric view of the battle—naturally, as Nolan is English himself—but the concepts of “Dunkirk spirit” and survival may be practically applied to conflicts across regions and time periods. The film resounds not only with the British public but also with those that Nolan has helped to shed a brighter light on the events at Dunkirk.