Few films succeed in building such emotional depth as writer and director Christopher Nolan’s latest masterpiece, “Dunkirk.” The film achieves greatness not with high drama or special effects, but instead with its strong emphasis on the realities of war.
Tensions run high from the opening of the film, as a young British soldier in World War II, Tommy, played by Fionn Whitehead, escapes German fire in the streets of Dunkirk, a coastal French town, only to find himself trapped on the beach along with around 400,000 other allied soldiers. This sense of suspense permeates the rest of the film, as well; viewers cannot fully recognize the intense, relentless clock-ticking sound in the background until it halts along with the soldiers’ train, safe at its final station in England.
Shot more than 75 years after the famed evacuation of more than 338,000 troops from Dunkirk, Nolan’s film captures the intimate experiences of the allies’ struggle for survival and the civilians who risk their own lives in their heroic rescue — all while British naval reinforcements are conspicuously absent, unable to navigate the shallow waters of the English Channel.
Viewers experience the evacuation from three vantage points, each progressing in their own time frames: from the beach over the period of a week, the sea over a day and the air over an hour. As in many of Nolan’s previous films, time is the complicating element that governs the events of the movie; in “Dunkirk,” it serves to weave together otherwise disparate moments.
Viewers watch as Tommy dodges shots and bombs, buries the dead in the sand and watches another man swim out to his apparent death. A yachtsman, played by Mark Rylance, waves a British flag over his shining but ill-equipped boat, rescuing stranded men as he crosses the English Channel. A pilot, played by Tom Hardy, picks off German planes that threaten — and at times succeed — in shooting down troops and sinking entire ships.
Altogether, the combined efforts of man, ship and plane coalesce into one grand narrative of collective victory motivated simply by each soldier’s will to survive. Now termed the “Dunkirk spirit,” this sentiment is revered in the British mind, though it is less-known to Americans whose country had not yet entered the war at the time of the evacuation.
Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema makes every effort to remove the felt presence of the camera from the film to provide an intimate viewing experience. The images on screen are the product of large-format film and are thus quite clear and detailed to begin with, but viewers can enjoy an even more vivid watching experience in Imax. The large-format method of production is quite a feat, given that viewers witness events alongside soldiers, in the cramped space below deck and from within cockpits of fighter planes.
The movie does not waste time on scripted, unnatural dialogue, instead capturing the soldiers’ and civilians’ brief, anxious exchanges. Singer Harry Styles makes his acting debut as an outspoken soldier stranded on the beach and uses coarse language not originally in the script.
Styles and his counterparts, played by actors including Damien Bonnard and Aneurin Barnard, are well cast; they are realistically aged and closely resemble the young soldiers that fought in the war. Many of them — along with other prominent characters in the movie — remain nameless for the film’s duration, leaving viewers only to recall their faces each time it switches scenes. Their performances portray not only the soldiers’ desperation but also their grit, serving to replace traditional character development with raw reactions to a wide range of the horrors of war.
Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack, along with the incessant sound of machines at war, keeps with the rapid pace of the movie, speeding up at times as individual scenes build. But this buildup never leads to a climactic battle; instead, moments of tranquility become more frequent to signal that the evacuation — and so the film — is nearing its end.
The film succeeds precisely because Nolan abandons typical character development and plot structure, instead weaving individual people’s struggles across fleeting moments in time. This assigns the glory of war not to one hero’s victorious battle, but to the compilation of smaller moments — in this case, the endurance of allied forces and even British civilians.
Most importantly, this up-close look at war demonstrates the struggles soldiers face that do not often make it to the screen. When common men are abandoned by insulated authorities, they too must strategize and moralize in their own profound — albeit less noticeable — ways. In one scene, for example, soldiers and civilians encounter mutiny and a German spy, and in another, those already scarred by previous attacks plot escape routes from the cabins of the ships intended to save them. In a single moment, some must summon the bravery required to sacrifice themselves for others.
In an era of film that lifts up the lone hero whether in action, dystopia or even comedy, “Dunkirk” is distinctive in its celebration of the ordinary person’s power as part of the collective. Even recent war films, including “American Sniper,” “The Imitation Game” and “Bridge of Spies,” most often portray the struggles and successes of just one figure — in these examples, a sniper, a mathematician and a lawyer, respectively — in wars involving millions.
In the end, even as the Dunkirk evacuation concludes successfully with then-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s powerful “We shall fight on the beaches” speech resonating across the film’s final shots, it is not enough to ease viewers back into civilian life. After “Dunkirk” concludes, you might just leave the theater still hearing the relentless ticking of the Dunkirk spirit in your head.