In the early part of World War II, Hitler’s blitzkrieg left the British Army pushed up against the English Channel with no immediate means to get safely back to England to fight another day. The stakes were high—if Hitler managed to destroy the British forces on the shores of Dunkirk, the invasion of England would be sure to follow soon.
The latest film from Christopher Nolan (Interstellar) follows a few people caught up in this historic moment. While not strictly an anthology film, Dunkirk is about several different stories that only intersect in chaotic ways. It begins with Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), the only survivor of an ambush, as he makes his way to Dunkirk rally point. He and his fellow soldiers make their way to a ship, surviving Stuka dive-bomb attacks, artillery barrages, and military logistics; unfortunately, they are far from safety.
The narrative shifts to a private boat departing England under the command of a Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and crewed by his son, Peter, and Peter’s friend George. They set sail for Dunkirk and find themselves rescuing a seaman (Cillian Murphy) long before they get to the French coast; the rescue becomes something else, however, as the seaman battles increasingly fierce PTSD the closer they get to the sounds of sights of the Dunkirk battlefield.
Then the subject shifts again to a trio of Spitfires patrolling the channel near Dunkirk. Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) find themselves in one dogfight after another as they do their best to defend the ships and troops on the Dunkirk beach. After the first engagement with a flight of Me 109Es, it becomes clear to both pilots that this will be a fight to the bitter end. (Air-combat aficionados and gamers will certainly recognize the dogfights as “realistic.”) As Farrier becomes increasingly harried in his pursuit of an He 111 bomber, his proper air-combat technique transitions into a brute-force attack at lethal range. It’s one storm of tracers against another, and there’s no guarantee who’s going to stay in the air.
Nothing goes as planned for anyone on this beach, and instead of one story of one desperate fight for survival, Nolan delivers an ensemble collection of stories that cover the scope of tragedy and heroism that occurred throughout a battle that often receives a bare mention in history books. Remarkably, outside of some splendid dogfights, there is very little combat in this war movie—rather, it focuses on the soldiers who are harassed by constant bombs and artillery with little hope of returning fire or getting a shot in. Dunkirk shares much more with meditative films like Thin Red Line than shock-and-awe war pictures like Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down. The deliberate pacing, potent images, and sparse dialogue recall Apocalypse Now, and there is plenty of the same dread in this waterborne film as well. The mantra of “Don’t get off the boat” works just as well here as it does on Williard’s Mekong River.
Fans of Nolan will find the director making a departure from his previous films. As I mentioned earlier, dialogue is sparse, and the film uses all its cinematic power to let pictures and sound tell the story. Editing is restrained, as Nolan lets director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema present compositions that let space and light tell the story in single images rather than cutting them together into intense montage. The result is increased tension, as every long-lasting frame prolongs the ordeal rather than offering an escape. The soldiers can’t look away; why should the audience?
The performances are another highlight. Most notable is the way in which Nolan gets his stars to disappear into the tapestry around them. The best part of their performances is the dogged and fatigued notion of the everyman that each actor brings to his role. Tom Hardy’s pilot speaks in short bursts of dialogue and has little reaction to the swirling air combat around him. Kenneth Branagh drops his otherwise irrepressible nobility to bring a man at the mercy of history to resigned life. Fionn Whitehead presents a man doing everything he can to survive but who is also a bit of a coward at the same time. Mark Rylance is a stoic boatman who probably is the archetypal wartime Englishman: he’s not Churchill, but he could very well share a pint with the man.
There is no pomp and circumstance in Dunkirk, and the all the heroes are desperate survivors. The only glory to be found in the film is the next breath and the promise of seeing another day. One man clings to a boat while another burns alive in an oil fire. One man breaks the surface while another drowns banging against a bulkhead. Some live to fight another day and some pilots find their fight end long before “the finest hour.” So add to Dunkirk’s accolades the fact that it is an honest war movie—men will fight on land, on sea, and in the air, but it is seldom lofty ideals that compel them not to surrender. More often it is the simple desire to get home alive, to stand alongside their brothers, and to live one hour after the next.
What better measure of victory is there than that?