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