Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk reaffirms just how powerful the movies can be when it comes to placing viewers in the moment. In this case, the moment is 1940 during World War II. The place is the French city of Dunkirk, where British soldiers have retreated to the coast after the German army has literally pushed them to the edge of the country. Under the most harrowing of conditions, these young men will endure, await rescue, and grow restless with uncertainty.
Movie Review: Dunkirk
By Matthew Huntley
August 2, 2017
Dunkirk is not only a superb film cinematically, with production (and post-production) values of the highest caliber, but the fact that it depicts and recreates a significant yet mostly unknown historical event makes it all the more meaningful. It opens our eyes, minds and hearts to what some soldiers during World War II had to bear. This isn't pleasant or romantic viewing, but it's nonetheless essential and incredibly riveting.
As a “war picture,” Dunkirk isn't as concerned about context as much as sensation, and yet this doesn't make it any less intellectually stimulating. The action that unfolds keeps our minds racing. Nolan, who also wrote the screenplay, introduces us to the battle at hand with just a few lines of white text over a black screen, and then, fade in: a gun fires - loudly. From here on out, the film never stops moving, cutting back and forth between three different but equally nerve-wracking narratives. If anything, the film makes us incredibly grateful we're not any of the characters, who are mostly nameless soldiers and commanders who remain determined yet are losing hope and feeling abandoned by their country, the leaders of which refuse to surrender to Germany but still commit to evacuating its 30,000 plus men from the area, although this will be no small feat.
When we first meet the soldiers, their situations are already dire, and over the next few days, things will only get worse. On the beach, massive lines for would-be evacuation boats have formed and there's clearly not enough room for everybody. Meanwhile, bullets fly from all directions, bombs get dropped by the Luftwaffe above, and some men resort to suicide by walking out into the ocean and never coming back.
Those who have chosen survival will brave conditions that are cold, wet and dark. There will also be moments when the ability to breathe isn't a guarantee and one's options are to either drown or burn. But on top of the physical hardships, there are emotional and psychological traumas, some of which stem from not feeling like you belong and/or not trusting your comrades.
Many war movies recreate degrees of these situations all the time, but there's often a safe, comfortable distance between them and the viewers. Dunkirk is an exception. It's more raw and palpable. The soundtrack, photography and special effects, which are seamless, envelop us to the point where we feel like we're right there with these men, and not in a fun way. What they feel, we feel, and it's rough. We leave the theater with a legitimate sense of what it might have been like to be a soldier at Dunkirk.
Amidst the madness, Nolan refrains from investing too much time in any one character, which is wise because it's clear from the beginning no one is guaranteed to survive. In fact, the people in the film aren't characters as much as faces to which we can identify the current narrative. A similar strategy was practiced by Ridley Scott in Black Hawk Down, which, like Dunkirk, was less about the people and more about how the conditions affected the people.
On land, we follow Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who, after outrunning snipers, partners with another youth-faced soldier and attempts to use a wounded man on a stretcher as his ticket to get about a board an exiting boat. This effort, though, like many thereafter, quickly proves futile.
In the air, two spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) make their way over Dunkirk to fend off the looming Luftwaffe, but the Englishmen are low on fuel, and they spend so much time dodging bullets themselves, their mission shifts from rescuing and protecting those to simply evading danger.
With limited resources, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) receives word the Royal Navy has enlisted private citizens to use their own boats to make their way across the English Channel and pick up the soldiers. Nolan shows us this perspective through Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), along with Peter's friend, George (Barry Keoghan). As they make their way to Dunkirk, they happen upon a traumatized soldier (Cillian Murphy), who chides Dawson for willingly taking them back into the chaos, but even after a tragedy occurs, Dawson remains steadfast in fulfilling what he believes is his duty.
Even though the film constantly shifts across its multiple stories, Nolan and his longtime editor, Lee Smith, keep each narrative afloat by incorporating it with a growing sense of urgency. As the peril and exhaustion of the allies heightens, so too does the film's tension, and it's created and held so masterfully that we find our own bodies tightening up. We're with the characters as their minds race with incertitude, not knowing if they'll be able to breathe, or if they'll have enough fuel, or if their landing gear will open, or if they'll be viewed by their fellow country men and women as cowards or heroes.
By being such a convincing war film, Dunkirk invariably ends up as an “anti-war” film. Why? Because after seeing it, we can't imagine anyone thinking war is worth the fear, anxiety and physical misery these men faced, and even though its politics are mostly muted, we get the sense Nolan wanted to tell a story that depicted heroism but also served as a cautionary about what can happen when countries choose to violence to resolve issues.
No matter your politics or how you interpret the film's message, Dunkirk is simply breathtaking. Its sounds and visuals stir us and keeps the film's tension locked right up to the end. It didn't seem possible that Christopher Nolan's standards and abilities could beyond the high level they were already at, but Dunkirk shows he's gained a greater knowledge of how to make viewers feel they're someplace else, and even though Dunkirk is a place we don't want to be, the film allows us to recognize those who were there and what they experienced.