May 1940: as Germany dominates the Battle of France, Allied forces are continually pushed back until they reach the English Channel. With nowhere else to go, hundreds of thousands of men are left stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk to await rescue, or death/capture at the hands of the Nazis.
But against all odds, most of them did make it back during the “Miracle of Dunkirk”, in which thousands of English civilian boats made the journey across the ocean to assist with their transport. In all, more than 330,000 soldiers made it back home.
“Evacuations don’t win wars,” Winston Churchill reminded the English at the time, referring to the still-lurking threat, but this one might have saved his country. The loss of a third of a million troops would have devastated Britain’s military forces.
In Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan recreates the events of the evacuation not through real-life struggle (while adherent to the basic facts, the story is a fictional re-creation) or character-driven drama pure through pure, awesome spectacle: we bare witness to the event through numerous perspectives that eventually give us a profound appreciation for one of key events of WWII.
No beating around the bush: Dunkirk is not only one of the finest movies that Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight) has made, but also one of the finest depictions of warfare ever put to the screen. It mixes the tactical militarism of Patton or The Longest Day with the kind of you-are-there bluntness of the Normandy Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan, and successfully delivers the best of both worlds.
Throughout the film, Nolan utilizes three precise perspectives (the mole, the sea, and the air) to paint on his larger-than-life canvas.
On the ground, a grunt named Tommy (played newcomer Fionn Whitehead, and ostensibly the lead character) narrowly makes his way out of the town and to the beach, where he witnesses the awesome spectacle of hundreds of thousands of men lined up and awaiting transport back home.
Scrounging for survival, he and another soldier (Interlude in Prague’s Aneurin Barnard) rush an injured man across the mole, a lengthy pier that serves as the only place a large ship can dock and take on passengers.
On the mole, a Commander (Kenneth Branagh) and a Colonel (James D’Arcy) fruitlessly attempt to organize the evacuation. They can almost see “home” across the ocean – – but the magnitude of what must be done to get all the men there seems insurmountable.
In the sea, the British Navy is requisitioning recreational vehicles to help with the rescue. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and local boy George (Barry Keoghan) decide to head out on the family’s yacht themselves. Along the way, the encounter a downed vessel carrying a single survivor (Cillian Murphy).
And in the air, RAF pilots played by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden patrol the skies over the Channel, attempting to protect English ships carrying survivors from the German planes picking them off.
In past films, and specifically The Dark Knight, Nolan has been accused of incoherently staging and editing his action sequences; a valid observation. In Dunkirk, meanwhile, it’s almost as if the director doubles-down on his style – and comes out ahead.
While individual action scenes are (for the most part) coherent, throughout much of the film we see numerous scenes of action that contain elements that we don’t quite understand. While the film cuts back and forth between the different perspectives, we don’t know how they fit together.
But towards the end of the film, Nolan slowly reveals that he has been intercutting the storylines in non-linear fashion, and by the finale the pieces of his plot puzzle all fit together quite beautifully.
It’s a brilliant technique that accomplishes two things: at first, it delivers the kind of individual perspective that experiences only part of the event, and cannot grasp the magnitude of the a whole. But as we slowly piece together each of the perspectives, we do get that full magnitude during a sobering climax. While less showy, the storytelling here is as innovative as Nolan’s backwards-told Memento, especially for a film of this scale.
Among everything else that Dunkirk does well, there’s a total lack of graphic violence. While most unusual for a modern-day war movie, which often use gore to recreate the horrors of war (see last year’s Hacksaw Ridge), the film manages to create greater horror through epic presentation alone.
With little in the way of a plot-based (or even character-based) story to move the events of the film forward, Nolan relies heavily on the soundtrack from longtime collaborator Hans Zimmer to keep the audience engaged. It’s Zimmer’s finest work to date, a pulsating, mathematically precise zombie-movie score that ratchets up the tension and never lets us out of its grasp until the climactic crescendo.
One of the best films of 2017 and one of the best war movies ever made, Dunkirk demands to be seen on the big screen. In Prague, catch it in IMAX 70mm at Cinema City Flora.