Movie Review: Dunkirk
By Matthew Huntley
August 2, 2017
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.
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.