You’d think 107 minutes of nonstop gunfire, torpedoes, air assaults, sinking ships, and explosions would not only be an affront to the senses but would also become incredibly exhausting and even repetitive. But Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk isn’t a Michael Bay film. Instead, those 107 minutes are spent placing audiences right in the thick of the constant war horror, terror, and despair experienced by the British and French soldiers at Dunkirk, France during the Second World War.
I’m no history buff, and what little I know about the Dunkirk incident is limited to a brief Google search and what my mother told me before we entered the theater. (To be honest, she is the only reason I saw this movie.) I’ve learned there is a lot more to the incident than what the film shows. Nolan largely limits the movie’s scope to the evacuation of British soldiers on the beach as they are surrounded by German soldiers, though the Dunkirk incident extended far into the local area, involved several skirmishes and multiple other nationalities, and stirred up plenty of tension back in Britain. That’s a lot to fit into a movie, though, and Nolan does a splendid job with the more focused evacuation story. Three main stories make up Nolan’s telling of the evacuation (each taking place in the same area over the course of different spans of time, ultimately converging toward the end of the film). While these three stories are largely fictional, they still manage to successfully drop viewers into the middle of the fray, providing them with a taste of wartime terror for themselves.
The first plotline is arguably the central one, taking place over multiple days. After being pushed by enemy soldiers from the town’s interior to the Dunkirk’s shore, British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) encounters Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) seemingly burying a fellow soldier. The two band together to try to save the life of an unnamed injured soldier, rushing to get him to the ship disembarking with evacuees. In the process, the two save Alex (Harry Styles) from death, completing what can be considered the Beach Trio, the three “focal” soldiers who continue engaging in evacuation attempts alongside the other British and allied soldiers throughout the film in an effort to not be bombed, shot, or otherwise killed. (I’m fairly certain only Gibson was named during the film, with the credits providing names to the Tommy and Alex.) The second plotline follows Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), along with young hand George (Barry Keoghan), as they respond to the Royal Navy’s commandeering of privately-owned ships. The three decide to sail for Dunkirk themselves instead of having the Royal Navy take command of their vessel. Along the way they happen upon a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) stranded at sea and help him aboard, but the group comes to a disagreement when the soldier demands they take him to England instead of back into the fray. Finally, toward the end of the movie’s timeframe (but receiving ample screentime throughout the film) are the efforts of Spitfire pilots Collins (Jack Lowden), Farrier (Tom Hardy), and their squadron leader to support the Dunkirk evacuation from the air. The three wage aerial war against the enemy, working with limited fuel to protect their comrades at sea and on the beach.
The movie is less about the characters involved in these three plotlines and more about the survival, accomplishments, and despair of all parties involved, which is a good thing given their limited dialogue and chameleon-like crowd-camouflaging. To be frank, I just absolutely lost track of literally everyone during the movie. Tommy, Alex, and Gibson at times easily blend in with the multitude of other soldiers, especially when their hair is matted by seawater. And the pilots can be difficult to distinguish as well given the fact that their faces are almost completely covered most of the time. That made it hard to really connect with any of the characters, and they often just devolved into Soldiers A, B, & C and Pilots 1, 2, & 3 (not ft. The Jackson 5), which honestly was likely the intent, as these characters serve as representations of their respective groups instead of any real individual struggles. The lack of dialogue in the movie, while impactful from an atmospheric standpoint, only highlights makes it even more difficult to keep track of characters, but again, the movie isn’t focused on the individuals present so much as it is on the shared goal of everyone involved, so it’s less an issue than it would be in most movies.
Speaking of the dialogue (pun intended), the few lines that do exist often sound mumbled and can be difficult to decipher. I honestly am not sure I picked up on any full conversation during the movie, save maybe for those that took place on Mr. Dawson’s boat. Was this annoying? A little bit. Did it really hinder the movie? Minimally. I think Dunkirk could have had zero dialogue aside from Mr. Dawson’s boat and people yelling to take cover, and it still would have worked brilliantly. In that instance, the only downside would really be the lack of a rather telling scene between Alex and Gibson that helps highlight the somewhat strained relationship between the British and their allies during this point in the war. As a result of the scarce dialogue, though, most of the acting is performed through actions and facial expressions. Frantic motions, defeated expressions, and flexible eyebrows take the limelight and run with it, creating a more visually engrossing cinematic experience that assists in drawing viewers even deeper into the wartime action. Dunkirk is a prime example of actions speaking louder than words, as the movie relies almost entirely on the non-verbal capabilities of its actors to carry its story.
Finally, let’s talk about the music. It’s been years since I’ve seen a movie that made me this antsy to rush home and purchase the score. Hans Zimmer delivers an explosive yet poignant soundtrack to complement the dire action unfolding onscreen. Most themes in the movie are structured around dramatically increasing tempos, accentuating the action as the chaos within each scene continues to build. I’m not sure any individual pieces of this score are all that memorable, but the music as a whole is a perfect fit for the movie. In fact, I’d argue it should be listened to as a whole. This isn’t just background music for individual scenes; these tracks come together to form a work of art rivaling the movie itself.
Suffice it to say, this is not the type of film I would normally go to see at the box office. Yet somehow those types of films are often the ones I end up enjoying the most. Dunkirk is no exception. It is 107 minutes of pure adrenaline and despair, full of crushing emotions, realistic wartime stress, and gorgeous cinematography. Unless you absolutely have to have compelling characters or some romantic subplot in your movie, go see this film. Even then, go see it. This is a glorious piece of cinema that not only tops Nolan’s own accomplishments but also stands atop the summit of film achievements alongside history’s best.
- Truly allows audiences to experience the constant despair surrounding the soldiers
- Violent without being gruesome
- Incredible cinematography
- Riveting score
- Characters and dialogue are easily lost in the chaos
- Sometimes difficult to identify which side the planes are on
- Additional focus on morale at home would have been a nice touch