Although, Christopher Nolan conceived of the idea for making Dunkirk some 25 years ago, he decided to wait until he had refined his movie making skills enough so that he could make a film of the size and scope he wanted to. That quarter of a century was well worth the wait, as its success at the box office as the highest grossing World War Two film of all time proves, so it will not disappoint either his fans or newcomers to his work. Nolan spared no expense in making Dunkirk by refurbishing actual battle ships and fighter planes from the era, casting thousands of extras, and relying more on practical effects rather than CGI. Moreover, Hans Zimmer once again joins his team to create a simple but poignant soundtrack which accentuates the level of suspense encountered in the movie time and time again.
The film depicts the events which occurred from May 26 to June 4 of 1940, when in the eighth month of World War Two, the German armies snuck through a weak point in the Maginot Line and began conquering all of France. The British Expeditionary Force as well as thousands of French, Belgian, Dutch, and Polish troops retreated north until they reached the port town of Dunkirk. Surrounded on all sides, the British high command made the decision to evacuate their troops in what was called Operation Dynamo. After enduring a week of shelling from the German army and countless sorties by the Luftwaffe, a combination of navy and civilian ships managed to evacuate some 338,000 men from Dunkirk back across the English Channel.
While Dunkirk is actually one of Nolan’s shortest film in terms of running time, it still manages to tell three separate stories occurring over three different time periods, but which are brilliantly merged together at the film’s end. The first story, “The Mole”, which was the stonework pier that jutted out into the sea to where it was deep enough for large warships to pick up troops, follows the exploits of “Tommy” and other British soldiers as they endure one hardship after another over the course of a week in order to survive German attacks and get back home. The second story, “The Sea”, is about the one-day excursion of a civilian boat owner named Mr. Dawson, his son Peter, and a young friend named George. Choosing not to have their yacht commandeered by the Royal Navy, they set out for Dunkirk on their own to pick up the stranded troops. The third story, “The Air”, is about the one hour flight of three RAF fighter pilots who set out to aid the evacuation efforts by engaging in aerial duels with the German fighters and bombers, all the while being cognizant of retaining enough fuel to return home.
The first thing to know about Dunkirk is that if you are looking for an action-oriented film such as Saving Private Ryan, Windtalkers, or Hacksaw Ridge, this movie is not for you. What makes this film different and yet so absorbing, is Nolan’s decision to eschew a Band of Brothers-style format of showing how the horror and carnage of combat affects characters we have been gradually introduced to. Instead he concentrates on three aspects of war that are usually not given prominence on the screen- the anonymity, loneliness, and sense of powerlessness endured by soldiers.
We see the anonymity from the very opening scene as five British soldiers walk through the deserted town of Dunkirk, trying to reach the coast. They are unnamed, unspeaking, and unremarkable. They all look alike, and when only “Tommy” makes it to the beach alive, he joins a whole host of soldiers who are just like him. The film is filled with all sorts of men (and some women) who we learn almost nothing about (save their ranks in some cases), who speak very little, and yet whose lives we are drawn into not by their individual identities or back stories but by their shared exploits as they struggle to do their duty as soldiers and make it home alive.
That sense of anonymity in turn presents the loneliness of the soldiers experience. The film was shot on location at the exact place on the beach in Dunkirk where the 1940 evacuation took place on 65mm IMAX film. Whether it is the soldiers, the boats, or the fighter planes, whenever they are shown, they are usually seen in only a small portion of the screen. In using this kind of scene framing effect, Nolan gives us the impression of the relative insignificance of the individual soldiers by contrasting them with the vastness of the outdoor locations. This coupled with the sparse dialogue and limited interactions among the soldiers, all give us the impression of the relative isolation that soldiers can encounter in war.
The anonymity and sense of isolation felt by the soldiers combine to create the last of the overriding themes that pervades all three of the story arcs in the film, the sense of powerlessness. Unlike the aforementioned war films where we see the main characters fight to the last bullet to stay alive or die trying, almost all of the deaths which happen in the film are from forces with which the soldiers cannot defend themselves.
Time and again we see soldiers who can do nothing against the U-boats that sink their ships or the aircraft that bomb and strafe their lines. In fact, with the exception of a scene near the end, you never see a German soldier. And even from both a narrative and a historical point of view, the British soldiers’ own government is portrayed and seen by the characters in the movie as yet another one of those disinterested forces with which they must contend. As the Dunkirk pier-master (wonderfully played by Kenneth Branagh) explains in the film, the British were willing to lose at Dunkirk, in order to win the war that was certain to come to the British mainland. Thus the British High Command was reluctant to send more soldiers and war material than was absolutely necessary, to evacuate the men. Hence, for both the audience and the characters, the feeling of tension and frustration is palpable, and gives us an image of war where, more often than not, survival is a result of chance or Providence rather than individual skill or savvy.
All in all the film is well worth seeing, and a must-have for any man’s library (its DVD release date is scheduled for December 19, so it would make a great stocking stuffer!) It’s portrayal of the actions of young men, brave and cowardly alike, most of whom were (historically speaking) conscripts at the time, is certainly something that the young men of today should see. After all, save for those who are from military families, it’s a safe bet that a lot of people today have the typical view of Millennials as a bunch of unambitious slackers running around in their heads. They would be hard-pressed to envision a bunch of 18-25 year olds, who Nolan brilliantly portrays with very boyish-looking actors such as Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles, actively taking part in a titanic struggle that would eventually take the lives of tens of millions people.
Living as we do, 3-4 generations removed from the events of World War Two, and in a world of relative comfort, security, and stability has certainly diminished the ability of far too many to appreciate the blessings and freedoms we currently enjoy. Blessings and freedoms given to us by the sacrifices of the kind of young men portrayed in the film, sacrifices that are now so foreign to today’s modern sensibilities, that words such as “bravery” and “freedom” have become as insipid and meaningless as the rest our public discourse. The fact that USA Today’s Brian Truitt could write a fairly good review of the film, but still can’t help himself and feels compelled to write what has got to be the most patently stupid criticism of the film when he wrote, “The trio of timelines can be jarring as you figure out how they all fit, and the fact that there are only a couple of women and no lead actors of color may rub some the wrong way”, would seem to prove the point.
So do yourself a favor, go see Dunkirk, and better yet do a young man a favor and take him with you. Let them see what it really means to overcome their innate selfishness and fears, and to give it one’s all for something bigger than themselves. Explain why the heroics portrayed in this film by both soldiers and civilians and summed up in Churchill’s famous “Fight them on the Beaches” speech which is heard at the end of the film, is the complete antithesis of the plague of “alienation” that was discussed in a recent article on this site, and petty tribalism which infects our modern era. Maybe then, the young might not be so dismissive of, and hopefully become more fervent in preserving, those aspects of Western Civilization that have given them the luxury and freedom to be so nonchalant of their culture in the first place.