“Dunkirk” is the first Christopher Nolan film since “Insomnia” where you see the movie’s title on the screen at the beginning instead of at the end. This surprised me as Nolan always seems determined to suck you right into the movie instead of having you think about its title until the screen fades to black. When it comes to “Dunkirk,” however, I imagine he wanted audiences to have this title firmly implanted in their brains as this particular World War II story is one of character and bravery in the face of such agonizing defeat.
The title refers to the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, France where thousands of allied soldiers were trapped like sitting ducks as the German army closed in on them during the Battle of France. Now World War II has been a historical event which filmmakers have visited as often as they have the Vietnam War, but “Dunkirk” has a different angle than other films of its genre. There are no American troops to be found here, we never see Germans but feel them closing in on the allies throughout, and the allies are at a complete loss in terms of being able to fight back. What happened at Dunkirk was not at all about victory, but about survival, and sometimes surviving a war is all a solider needs to do.
Nolan, who also wrote “Dunkirk’s” screenplay, tells the movie from three different perspectives: the land, the sea, and the air. On land, we meet British Army Private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who barely escapes a German ambush and arrives at the beach of Dunkirk where he befriends Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), another young soldier with whom he desperately tries to escape Dunkirk with on any boat that will take them. On the sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) sails his boat out to Dunkirk in an effort to bring stranded soldiers back home, and he is joined by his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) who is curious to see the war up close. And in the air, Royal Air Force Pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and two other Spitfire pilots battle enemy fighters in the sky who are determined to destroy any boat going away from Dunkirk. Everyone is busy as can be as they fight to keep their fellow allies out of harm’s way, and this is even though the situation is growing increasingly dire.
What’s fascinating is how Nolan ends up using very little dialogue throughout a good portion of the film. These characters are too shell-shocked to speak in full sentences after all they have been through, and Tommy and Gibson end up connecting in a way not only wordless but also totally believable. As “Dunkirk” goes on, more dialogue is featured, but Nolan has already managed to set up the atmosphere to where no one needs to say much because their faces and eyes say so much more than words ever could.
Watching all the soldiers on the beach, waiting for a boat, any boat, to take them, I was reminded of Tom Sizemore’s dialogue from “Saving Private Ryan” when he said, “I want plenty of feet between men. Five men is a juicy opportunity. One man is a waste of ammo.” These soldiers are stuck together in bunches, desperate to escape Dunkirk at the earliest opportunity. I felt horrible for them as they all just sitting ducks for German bombers who can pick them off ever so easily. All these soldiers can do, other than shoot back, is to play dead in the sand, but even this may not be enough to save them.
Much of the movie is focused on the endless ordeals of Tommy, Gibson, and another young soldier named Alex (Harry Styles) as they get on different boats to escape from Dunkirk. However, their successes are often thwarted by attacks which sink the ships they are on, and they soon find themselves in even worse situations. Like Adrien Brody in “The Pianist,” these characters are caught up in unthinkable circumstances and are just trying to survive by any means. Many will consider them cowards for trying to flee, but considering the dire situation they are trapped in, it’s hard to hold much of a grudge against them.
With Mr. Dawson and his two young companions sailing out to sea, we see the need these men have to help those in harm’s way. While Dawson is supposed to give his ship over to ship over to the Navy as they are commandeering private boats to help in the Dunkirk evacuation, he simply sails off as he feels it is his duty to rescue as many soldiers as he can since it was his generation who decided to send young men out into the battlefield. As for the two boys, both want to do something noteworthy in this war instead of just staying on the sidelines. In wartime, it doesn’t matter if you are a soldier or not because everyone is involved in one way or another.
For me, the moments in the air were among the most fascinating, and not just because of Hoyte van Hoytema’s beautiful cinematography. Once those pilots and their planes came up on the screen, I figured it would all play into the clichés of war movies or be something like “Top Gun” with characters infinitely eager to be seen as heroes and taking giddy pleasure in shooting the enemy down. But this is not the case in “Dunkirk” as these pilots are simply men doing their job without any fanfare, and they are well aware of the risks and of what could happen if the enemy wins. Farrier, in particular, has even a bigger risk to consider as his fuel gauge is cracked to where he can’t tell how much fuel he has left. He should turn back, but with the allies having little to defend themselves with, his concern for their well-being overrules any thoughts he has for his own safety.
With these three divergent plot points, Nolan has the Dunkirk evacuation surrounded brilliantly. This is not a story about victory in the slightest, but instead one of character and of what people will do in a most precarious situation. Some stand around as others suffer helplessly because they can’t save them, others are desperate to escape by any means as the miracle they pray for doesn’t look to be delivered to them any time soon, and there are those who sail out to the most dangerous place not because they want to, but because they have to. Like I said, “Dunkirk” is a movie about the character of a person and how that character is tested in wartime.
Nolan also ratchets up the intensity throughout as the situation these characters are in becomes increasingly dire as the Germans close in on them. This is especially the case when Tommy, Alex and Gibson join a group of Scottish soldiers who have discovered an abandoned boat in the intertidal zone which they plan to use for their escape when the tide rises. The Germans, however, have already begin using it for target practice, and the holes they put in the boat soon have water coming through them. To stay on the sinking ship is suicide as they will certainly drown, but to go out into the open is no different as they will be shot once they are out in the open. But Nolan squeezes even more intensity out of this scene as it is suddenly revealed one of the soldiers on board might be a German spy, and it becomes a question of not who will survive, but who will die first.
There’s not a weak performance to be found here as every single actor in “Dunkirk” brings their A game to the table. Mark Rylance remains an impeccable actor, and he makes Mr. Dawson into a man determined to do his national duty not just out of necessity, but out of guilt as well. I’m not familiar with Fionn Whitehead, but his work here is exemplary as he doesn’t have much dialogue and instead has to spend most of his performance showing the turmoil Tommy endures through his eyes and actions. Cillian Murphy also gives a strong supporting turn as a soldier who has seen the worst war has to offer, and it becomes clear he will never again be the man he once was. Harry Styles, whom many thought would stand out like a sore thumb, fits perfectly into this ensemble of actors without ever overshadowing them. Even the great Kenneth Branagh shows up as Commander Bolton who oversees the evacuation of soldiers, and the moment where his eyes water up at the sight of those private boats sailing towards the soldiers is a moment of beauty as I wanted to cry with him. To quote the movie’s tagline, these soldiers couldn’t get home, so home came for them.
But one performance I want to point out in particular is Tom Hardy’s as Farrier. Watching the actor here reminded me of his work in “Locke” as, like the character in that movie, Farrier spends the majority of the time in a moving vehicle with only his fellow pilots and his own sense of duty to keep him company. Not once does Hardy try to portray Farrier as some hotshot pilot like Maverick in “Top Gun” or Captain Steve Hiller in “Independence Day,” but instead as a soldier like any other. Even with his face covered by an oxygen mask, Hardy deftly shows the stoicism and determination of his character as he continues to battle his foes in the sky even as his gasoline supply continues to dwindle, and he makes Farrier into the hero this movie very much deserves.
Another big character in “Dunkirk” is the music of Nolan’s frequent collaborator, Hans Zimmer. The German film composer has given us some of the most thrilling music scores of the past couple of decades, and his music here helps to make an intense motion picture experience even more intense than it already is. It essentially acts as a ticking clock, reminding the audience of how time is running out for the allied soldiers as the German forces get closer and closer to their location. Even in its more hopeful moments, Zimmer provides ominous sounds reminding us how the danger is always around the corner, ready to strike without much warning. When Zimmer’s music breaks into a cue scoring the arrival of boats to take the soldiers home, I could help but let out a sigh of relief as he finally had a reason to slow things down a bit and revel in the heroics of those who came to rescue the stranded men.
Does “Dunkirk” stand as one of the greatest war movies, let alone World War II movies, ever made? You bet. Nolan continues to give us one brilliant cinematic masterpiece after another, and whether or not you think this film is his best, it is certainly the most important he has made to date. The story of the Dunkirk evacuation is one the British people were raised on, and the world needs to be reminded again of how important a story this is. On one hand it is a story about military defeat, but it is also about a nation’s character and of how citizens stood up in the face of disaster to help those trapped. All the characters featured here endure different fates, but what they endure says more about them than words ever can. And the movie also reminds us sometimes all you need to do in a war is survive. You may come out of a war not feeling like the hero everyone makes you out to be, but surviving really is more than enough. At the very least, it gives you a reason to carry the story on to the next generation so the sacrifices made by so many will never be lost in the backroom of history.