Dunkirk, France, 1940. Roughly 400,000 Allied soldiers are trapped on the beach of this northern enclave, surrounded and dominated by German firepower. The only hope for survival is evacuation, and that becomes less likely by the hour.
In a Hollywood story, these underdog Allies would fight their way out. But writer/director Christopher Nolan (the Dark Knight trilogy) isn’t interested in a Hollywood story. Instead, Dunkirk focuses on the sometimes heroic, sometimes selfish and always-brave actions of individuals on land, at sea and in the air, and how each contributed to the evacuation of more than 330,000 men.
The film is one-dimensional, but it’s within these confines that Nolan finds its heart. There are three storylines: One covers the course of a week and takes place on land, as soldiers (Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, singer Harry Styles as Alex and more) try to survive while their commander (Kenneth Branagh) tries to get them on ships, away from the beach. The second storyline takes place over one day at sea, as ships try to evade German bomber planes while British civilians (including one played by Oscar-winner Mark Rylance) cross the channel to help the evacuation. The third storyline encompasses just one hour; fighter pilots, led by Farrier (Tom Hardy) try to keep the men below them safe.
In uniting the triptych with a common goal and theme, Nolan keeps the audience focused with gripping filmmaking. The editing is brisk; a usual Nolan film runs two-and-a-half hours; this one clocks in at 105 minutes. That’s partly due to the untraditional approach. Rather than an exposition setting the stage before the plot kicks in, Nolan opens with soldiers walking through the town of Dunkirk, and then running because they’re under attack and just like that, we’re in the middle of the action.
Another reason we become so immersed is because we can’t help it. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema shot the film with IMAX cameras, meaning everything we see is meant for a large screen, from the cockpits of the spitfire planes to underneath the boats to long lines of men waiting to escape. In one scene, as a German plane attacks, Allied soldiers lie on the ground, heads covered. We see the bombs hit: First impacting the water, then the beach, culminating in an explosion mere feet from our hero (Whitehead) that sends his comrades flying. It’s a breathtaking sequence.
Hans Zimmer’s tense, urgent score punctuates the action and close calls, and there are many. The sound effects are also notable, if for no other reason than their intensity; at my screening, the bass was so loud, the seats shook at the sound of gunfire. It’s one thing to see the action; to feel it as well makes it enthralling.
Finally, Dunkirk feels palpable because it was shot on (at least some) of the actual locations of the real events. When combined with the fact that Nolan eschews CGI for more practical effects (meaning, he shoots as much as he can on set and doesn’t rely on computers to create half his movie [coughing] Michael Bay), there’s a totality to the film that’s tangible.
We’re used to Christopher Nolan making daring, ambitious films (Interstellar), and though it’s different in scale, Dunkirk certainly has his stamp on it. See it on as big a screen as you can find.
DID YOU KNOW?
Winston Churchill gave his famous “we shall fight” speech after the evacuation, but cautioned that the amazing liberation should not be considered a victory.