War is hell, and Dunkirk establishes that fact from its opening scene. Forgoing a large-scale historic narrative and individual backstories commonly acquainted with war movies, Christopher Nolan’s latest film thrusts viewers right into the moment and keeps them there until the climax. The movie is as harrowing as it is humanizing, a tale of survival and heroism through minimalist dialogue and Nolan’s trademark non-linear storytelling. We are living in the moment with the characters as they brave the obstacles on their respective terrains — land, sea and air — in order to make it back home.
Dunkirk drops its audience in the final days of the Battle of Dunkirk, during which 400,000 Allied soldiers found themselves stranded alongside the port town’s beaches. It is here that the British initiated Operation Dynamo: sending all available civilian boats across the English Channel to rescue the trapped soldiers. These events are narrated between three separate stories, all of which intertwine with one another at various parts of the film. On land, the focus lies with soldiers Alex (Harry Styles), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who must survive together while waiting for help to arrive. On the sea is a man named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), who must brave the Channel with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) as part of the rescue mission. And on sea are a trio of pilots led by Tom Hardy, whose mission is to take out the enemy bombers attempting to kill the evacuating ships.
In place of traditional character arcs, Nolan instead infuses his story with a core goal for everyone: survival. The prologue alone emphasizes its stakes without words, conveying an atmosphere of dread, isolation and helplessness through Tommy’s struggle to even make his way to the beach. The beach in particular is a place of silence, with many scenes relying on visuals and actions over physical conversations. From the non-verbal formation of Tommy and Gibson’s bond to the fear instilled in soldiers by the faint glimpse of a plane, the cinematography tells a story without having to say anything. For a director who traditionally prefers lengthy and philosophical dialogue, this is quite the unique direction for Nolan to take.
By comparison, the airborne storyline is much more minimalist in its approach, with Tom Hardy having a handful of lines to say behind his pilot’s mask. It’s in the water that a more verbal narrative is established between Mr. Dawson, Peter and George, as well as a shell-shocked pilot they rescue played by Cillian Murphy. Yet all of these individuals are simply part of a larger entity: the Allied forces trying to salvage some hope out of a monumental military defeat. Such an approach to storytelling can feel disorienting, even by the director’s own experience with films like Memento. Nevertheless, it works because Nolan is able to establish the grandeur of this moment in history, remembering Dunkirk for what happened rather than the people that made it happen.
Surprisingly, there aren’t that many moments in Dunkirk that I can classify as wartime set pieces, save for some dogfights during the Tom Hardy narrative. However, when the action does occur, it re-establishes the overwhelming sense of isolation that its protagonists, and to an extent, the militaristic collective, are feeling. Each moment of high intensity is matched by a calmer, more intimate scene that gives its characters room to breath, right before another explosion or enemy fire resumes the tension. This serves to keep the characters constantly on their toes, all the while placing the audience in their position of alertness and paranoia. Yet these moments are never used for the purpose of creating emotional melodrama — they feel real, and the reality is that these soldiers are going through hell. Combined with the small, but meaningful acts of heroism, Dunkirk manages to capture the moment in film, rather than make the moment feel like a film.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Even with Christopher Nolan’s incredible track record of Memento, Inception and The Dark Knight, Dunkirk joins them as one of his best. It’s undoubtedly one of the best war films I’ve seen and never strays that far into the path of Hollywood heroics. Instead, it’s a movie about a bunch of soldiers and civilians trying to survive, all the while looking for hope across the water.