SPOILER ALERT: You can pick up any modern history book to understand the real-life story of what happened at Dunkirk and the impact it had on World War II. Since we know the ending already, the suspense of this film centers on the "how" of the story. Christopher Nolan is notorious for twists and turns, so you may want to enter the theater without any previous knowledge of the movie's plot. If that's the case, I encourage you to go see the movie before reading this.
I went to see Dunkirk at my local movie theater, but I did not see it in 70mm format. I feel like that is important to note at the outset of this review because I think the film is centrally about creating an experience. Roger Ebert famously said, "It's not what a movie is about, it's how it is about it." How this movie is about Dunkirk is its ability to create an immersive experience. I imagine that is even more abundant when viewing the film in the format that director Christopher Nolan intended. There were, unfortunately, no 70mm showings near me, so I'll have to wait for that particular experience.
Even so, the one I had in the theater was extremely memorable. This is a movie that attempts to put you there. Obviously, I cannot personally speak to its level of success. I was not at Dunkirk. Neither was Christopher Nolan. But I imagine that he has done as good a job as humanly possible of creating an authentic cinematic experience.
The movie begins with, in my opinion, its greatest shot. Right at the beginning, with absolutely no dialogue, we are told everything we need to know about the situation facing the British soldiers. Pamphlets are falling from the sky as six soldiers walk through the city streets. The pamphlets say that the German army has surrounded the British soldiers. It is complete and utter chaos, and they have been pushed to the brink.
The movie then jumps into one of Nolan's famous cinematic tools - playing with time. We are given a three-pronged story structure - air, water, and land. The land component takes place over the course of a week. The water recounts the events of one day. And the air depicts one hour of time. Not only does this serve Nolan's preferred non-linear storytelling format, but it underlines a key aspect of the real life Dunkirk rescue. This was the culmination of many forces working simultaneously. They joined together in the face of utter destruction.
That is where my mind drifted so often during this movie. At no point in my life have I truly feared that some other world power was seeking to exert its will over the rest of us. It is hard for me to imagine what it was like in the world during the rise of Nazism in Germany. Even after 9/11, my fear was not that the world would be overrun by an evil regime if we did not complete our mission. I was fearful, sure. But my fear was that of a third-grader seeing heavy images on a screen.
You can't help but wonder what you would have done in those times. I've never served in the military. I have friends and family members who have, and I am deeply indebted and forever grateful for all who protect our freedom. I just wonder what I would do if another country was bombing my city and all that I hold dear hung in the balance. I hope that I would act with such valor. For, in the account of Dunkirk, we see the courage and love shown by ordinary people in extraordinary times.
We follow Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he evades the initial German gunfire and escapes to the beach, where there are thousands waiting for a rescue. He sees a soldier, Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), burying another soldier in the sand. Tommy goes over to help.
Right away, we are brought into the bleak, sad state of affairs. I mean, what would you be thinking in a situation like this? As you bury a young man, full of life, where would your mind go? On the beach of Dunkirk, there isn't much time for thought. The soldiers' eyes turn to the sky, and we see German planes approaching. Then, we hear them.
I am not sure how else to describe this other than to say the planes in this movie simply sound different than in any other war movie I've ever seen. They are harsh and dissonant. This is another way this movie brings you into the experience. In my opinon, it is as much an aural movie experience as a visual one.
And here is where I take issue with one aspect of the film, and it may not sit well with Nolan fans. I feel that many modern films misuse their music. Silence can be a powerful tool, especially in an emotionally-resonant film. Too often, I see films attempt to underline such moments with music. Hans Zimmer is a frequent collaborator with Nolan, and he has done astounding work on such films as Inception and Interstellar, to name a few. But here, I think his music detracts from the film. I'm not saying that there should be no music at all, but this film does so much with the "music" of ambient noise. There were multiple points in the film where I thought it would be better served by letting that soundtrack play on instead of inserting Zimmer's score.
It is the ambient noise of the planes overhead that hit me in these early scenes. You dread the planes for their sound as you sit in the theater. Even in doing so, I had to catch myself. These soldiers were dreading far more than a sound.
The planes drop their bombs, and Tommy and Gibson only barely make it out alive. They attempt to board a boat posing as medics. They hide out in the mole (the concrete structure separating the water) until another ship arrives. It is attacked by another wave of German bombers, but the two manage to save another soldier - Alex (Harry Styles). I wondered going into the movie whether or not I'd be able to dissassociate Styles from his pop-star persona. But I must say, his work in this film is very good.
On the docks, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D'Arcy) negotiate the rescue operation. The soldiers look to them for leadership and answers. But it is clear from the looks on their faces as we see them survey the scene and look to the sky that these men have many of the same questions. Yet, they still must lead. I wonder again at the fortitude of so many who faced these terrors in real life.
The three soldiers - Tommy, Gibson, and Alex - go through various other ordeals together. I want to highlight one, in particular, for its specific skill in making us feel the experience.
They have found a boat washed upon shore. Joined by Scottish soldiers, the board it for shelter. They quickly take fire and realize that they are on German land. Thus, the German soldiers are using the boat for target practice. As water comes in through the bullet holes, they decide that they must lighten the boat. Alex suggests throwing Gibson out, because he believes him to be a German spy since Gibson has hardly said a word. Gibson finally speaks, and reveals himself as a French soldier. He took the uniform and tags from the soldier he had been burying on the beach.
Here again, we are called into the experience of the scene. What would we do in that situation - both from Gibson's point of view and Alex's? Is Gibson a coward because he impersonated a fallen soldier to save himself? Likewise, is Alex cruel for his anger toward a man who took the spot of one of his countrymen, possibly a friend? As I consider the situation, I do not think I would react like Alex and threaten to throw someone out to the German soldiers. I also don't think I can judge Gibson too harshly for reacting as I'm sure many would in the same scenario. But such reflections are much easier when they come from the comfort of a leather chair as opposed to a leaking metal ship taking enemy fire.
We then move to the sea, where a local mariner, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), is taking his private boat out to sea before the Royal Navy can take it themselves. Dawson wants to help the soldiers stranded at Dunkirk, and he brings along his son, Peter (Tom Glyne-Carney), and Peter's friend, George (Barry Keoghan).
They come upon a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy). He asks them where they are going, and they tell him - Dunkirk. He immediately protests, saying that he will not go back. Are we to view this as cowardice? Who of us, in his situation, would act differently? He's just been saved! He's been waiting there for someone, and they finally came. And now they're going back to the bedlam he so narrowly escaped?
The soldier attempts to take control of the ship by force. In the ensuing skirmish, George is knocked down and hits his head badly. He begins to bleed and lose his vision. Mr. Dawson pushes on. They are too far to turn back now.
The final plot sequence comes in the air. Fighter pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) zip through the air fighting German planes. The air scenes are nothing short of cinematic excellence. They are well-designed and choreographed. I'm not sure what it is about Tom Hardy, but directors must not like hearing him talk. Either from a mask (The Dark Knight Rises) or a thick accent (The Revenant), it seems like he's always difficult to understand. Once again, his face is covered for much of the movie, but he turns in another solid performance.
An interesting facet of this movie is its almost indifference to character. By that I mean, we really don't learn much about any of the main characters in this movie. The ones I have mentioned in this review are the few named characters, and not even all of them are given much, if any, depth at all. This is obviously a directorial choice. On one level, I find it to be a good one.
What I find to be fascinating about the story of Dunkirk is that these people, who didn't necessarily know each other, came to one another's aid because they were fellow countrymen and women. They united in the face of a common foe. These people didn't know one another's backstory. But they still did it. So, in that sense, not knowing the characters' backstories helps us further experience what happened.
And yet, I think this story would have been served by helping us emotionally relate to at least one character on a deeper level. The movie's end, while still emotionally-resonant, would pack a bigger punch if we could relate with the personal stories a little deeper.
I saw so many people trying to rate this movie in Christopher Nolan's filmography, or decide its place among the many great war movies. I'm speaking to myself as much as anyone here, but I think we need to relax on trying to rate and number movies to death.
This movie is an experience. It is well done. It is thoughtful. I'd encourage anyone to go see it.
Note on content: As war movies go, this one is pretty tame when it comes to violence and gore. Nolan is showing a different side of war here. However, there is still violence, and it does contain thrilling and frightening situations in the context of war. Even the language is tame. This is not a movie that focuses on brutality. There is also no sexual content.