Dunkirk is a war film based off of World War II’s “Operation Dynamo,” which has also been called “The Miracle at Dunkirk.” The film was written and directed by Christopher Nolan.
Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and a small group of soldiers walk through the empty streets of Dunkirk, which propaganda posters fluttering in the space above them. The team is attacked and only Tommy makes it through English lines and on the beaches, ready to be picked up by military ships. He comes across Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), who is burying a fellow soldier. After being attacked in the air, a ship prepares to leave for Dover, England with the wounded but living soldiers of the war. Tommy and Gibson realize a wounded soldier is still on the beach and they rush to get him on board. They narrowly deliver him in time but are not allowed to board themselves, leaving them desperately waiting for the next ship to come by. Colonol Winnant (James D’arcy) and Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) look on trying to organize who boards the ships and hope that the Operation to evacuate goes according to plan.
In England, small civilian ships are being commandeered by the Royal Navy so they can be driven to Dunkirk to get as many men off the beach as possible. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) get ahead of the Navy by emptying their pleasure yacht and refilling it with blankets and life jackets. George (Barry Keoghan), a friend of Peter and deck hand, insists on going with them to join in the war effort and make something of himself. The first person they come across is a shivering 2nd Lieutenant (Cillian Murphy), the sole survivor of a U-boat attack on his vessel. George and Peter do their best to accommodate him, but he is more occupied with staying as far away from Dunkirk as possible. Mr. Dawson insists that getting the other soldiers home is the right thing to do.
Three Supermarine Spitfire pilots do their best to provide air support for the evacuation. After one of their planes go down, Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy) are left to distract and destroy the German Luftwaffe planes.
The movie focuses on three parts of the evacuation; The Mole (the beach and pier where the soldiers wait for evacuation, “One Week”), The Sea (Mr. Dawson’s boat, “One Day”) and The Air (The Spitfire pilots, “One Hour”). Each are focused on for a few minutes at a time in that order for the first half of the movie. As the plot moves forward, it becomes clear that the narratives don’t immediately align. However, this is not as much of a chore to keep track of as Nolan’s earlier narrative-vs.-plot film Memento. Each story is well-paced and keeps the audience engaged in the moment.
The film follows about a dozen characters, most of whom are introduced in the first 20 minutes of the film. The motivations behind the characters are almost unanimously straightforward: the soldiers are tired and want to go home. Commander Bolton and Colonol Winnant are in charge of keeping the soldiers’ morale high enough to see the evacuation through while hiding the fact that there are little options to get them home. Mr. Dawson, with his son and crew, want to be a part of the war effort and save whoever they can. The key differences are how they go about expressing their wants. The shivering soldier (his actual name is never given) is desperate to go home because he’s the only person left alive from his ship and suffers from Shellshock (now known as post-traumatic stress disorder). George, one of the deck hands, wants to make something of himself.
What’s noticeably absent is the face of an antagonist. While the German forces were the catalyzing force of WWII, no German soldiers get any screen time. This led to think that the Germans aren’t exactly the enemies of this film, but the Dunkirk shore. If the soldiers don’t get off the shore, there’s no reason to keep fighting; the losses would have been too great. Putting the film in this context almost makes the location itself a character worth considering.
What was most surprising in this film was the lack of regular dialogue. There are perhaps two sentences spoken in the first ten minutes of the film. Conversations were kept minimal throughout the film and things were explained through context, not words. One descriptor that stood out was the use of “shell shock,” reflecting the sign of the time before it was identified as PTSD.
Another brief and important moment was the use of French in one scene. French soldiers are among the English-speaking when they are lined up ready to board the ship. A guard prevents the French soldiers from boarding, insisting on “English-only” and raising tensions for those who don’t speak the language. The soldiers start arguing with the guard, again in French, which only makes everyone angry because of the language barrier.
Nolan’s exposition through limited dialogue allows the audience to immerse themselves into what’s shown, which I think is a very nice touch.
Hope is a weapon. Survival is victory.
That is the main tagline for the film and is present throughout. Hope is a fleeting feeling that things will work out in the end and has to be grasped constantly by the protagonists of the film. With each attack, the hope is momentarily lost. The soldiers convey, “Will I survive? How do I get out of here? Will I make it home?” and is encapsulated by the fact that their destination is so close.
“You can practically see it from here…Home.” – Bolton
Weather played an interesting part in the film. The misty atmosphere of the beach magnifies the gloom and overwhelming sense of dread that the soldiers on the beach need to get away from. Light coming from the sun or bouncing off the moon is in short supply and you’ll notice when it happens.
Another framing device I’ve considered while watching this movie is the speech given by Winston Churchill following the evacuation (which was used in at least one of the trailers for this movie):
We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
What I caught in particular are Churchill’s mentions of fighting them on the ground, the water, and the air; the exact framing for the narrative. Even when Nolan’s film is grounded in reality, I’ve come to realize there more to be examined than what’s just showing on-screen.
Hans Zimmer returns as the composer for the movie’s score. As I think back on his other works with Christopher Nolan, I’ve come to realize that identifying Zimmer’s patterns for music has become easy to do. With the fantastical story elements come orchestral sweeps and climactic notes. For this film however, these are tied to the plot in a different way. The first piece of music you hear combines the ticking of a pocket watch with a heartbeat, slowly but noticeably getting faster as the scene progresses. Time is running out and the audience feels it through the music. This quickening in the music is present all over the movie as hope is lost an restored, as I’ve mentioned before. Everyone is engaged through the music until the denouement of the movie where things finally slow down.
During the credits I noticed that a special dedication is given to the organization that restored planes and ships for use in the movie. A majority of the film is practical effects and that makes me enjoy this movie so much. While Nolan is famous for the mind-bending special effects of films like Inception and the Dark Knight films, he makes it a point to be practical where possible and only use CGI if it can’t be worked around.
Another thing is minor because it seems there was no intention behind it but something I couldn’t help but notice: sea foam. All of the movies I’ve seen never show any foam building up on the shore but makes itself present in the film. This shoreline isn’t polished and primed for aesthetics, it’s as down to earth as the events taking place in the film.
Christopher Nolan has a habit of rehiring actors for his movies. Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy have worked with Nolan in the past with the Dark Knight movies and Inception. Michael Caine, pretty much a Nolan staple since 2006, place the radio operator for the Royal Air Force and is not seen on-screen. Fionn Whitehead, who plays Tommy, is relatively obscure, having only done one other major acting project before being selected for this film. Harry Styles, who plays Alex in the film, isn’t introduced until the second act but is instantly recognizable as a member of the pop band One Direction. Apparently, Nolan wasn’t aware of Styles as a singer when he was chosen to play his role, which will Styles’s first foray into acting. Mark Rylance, who plays Mr. Dawson, was the actor and character model for The BFG released a year ago.
The film is set to attract lots of history buffs, curious to know how the fantastical Christopher Nolan will tackle a real-world event. Fans of Nolan’s previous films will also want to see how Nolan will pull this off.
This movie made me care a lot more about the progression of the story than Nolan’s previous films. It doesn’t let up and allow the audience to relax. There’s always something happening on screen instead of a breather discussion providing exposition; it’s shown instead of told. As a result, the film is shorter than Nolan’s other films, stopping at about an hour and 45 minutes. Everything is packed into a short, digestable movie that you can get away with watching only once, unlike most of his other films.
This film has the unusual opportunity to have the audience care about an event that they already know the ending to, such as All The President’s Men or Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith. The framing has the audience, for the most part, know that Operation Dynamo was a success and the soldiers went on to continue the war to eventually win. Although the characters were ultimately fictitious, it gives the audience a sense of what it was like on the beach of Dunkirk, waiting and hoping that they will get a reprieve from the terror of war.