Written by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles
Going out to war willingly to protect your nation comes with a level of pride for the effort of national security. These aspirations can swiftly meet reality when out on the battlefield, especially when things are not looking good for your particular side. This is where the soldiers trapped on Dunkirk find themselves where the game becomes about survival and nothing else really matters.
With the Germans gaining ground in France, the British forces have run out of room and must wait on the beaches of Dunkirk for safe voyage back to England. The Germans get closer each day and the men must hold onto their sanity as each boat loaded on with people gets taken out by enemy aircrafts, which Farrier (Tom Hardy) tries to take down. To the rescue of these men are civilian boats coming from England as the last hope.
A few characters in Dunkirk actually receive a name with most of them only being known to me through research. The anonymity of these characters works exactly how Christopher Nolan wanted where the story becomes less about an individual’s experience, but rather a collective moment of basic survival against a seemingly insurmountable enemy. On first viewing, this anonymity came as a negative as a film watcher typically invested in character progression throughout a narrative, but it does not take away from the technical achievement and storytelling merits this film possesses.
Set in a nonlinear fashion, this film presents three large perspectives of what occurs in this battle for survival. There are the men on the beach awaiting any boats to arrive with the threat of the Germans reaching them always looming, Farrier and the other pilots trying to thwart the German air attacks, and the civilians trying to make their way to the French shore. The jump from different timelines set in the same span of days demonstrates the perspectives of these characters and how getting these men off of Dunkirk proved to be a collective effort with plenty of bravery and desperation. Hope remains the only thing the men on the beach have and the multiple times it gets ripped away from them throughout the story becomes cruel.
Multiple times, it’s stated that home can be seen just across the English Channel from where they stand. Being so close to home but yet so far away makes the wait for safety so agonizing for them, which the film strongly displays. A boat can arrive and some of the soldiers desperately try to get on only for it to be bombed. Doing all of this only to jump off and swim back to shore must be emotionally defeating. It creates the feeling of being in a never-ending nightmare. With the desperation reaching an all-time high with this stress, division begins to form for who can make it off with certain ranks going first and the English prioritizing their own before helping out any French soldiers. Those moments show the unfairness of this whole fiasco, but as one of the soldiers aptly points out, “Survival isn’t fair.”
The technical achievements on display in Dunkirk cannot be understated because they are a true work of art of keeping the tension of the situation at a high level for the entirety of the feature. Part of this continual build-up goes with the decision of Nolan to never show a German in this ordeal. The entire story fixates on these British soldiers and the moments where the Germans have their influence through gunshots, they never share the frame with these soldiers, which only adds to the horror of the circumstance they find themselves in. The closest imagery is the planes flying around them dropping bombs and wreaking havoc. On a practical level, the visuals look tremendous in how the scenes get established and then get executed. With the lack of characterization for these soldiers, the technical aspects become the focal point of what continually makes the story compelling and it definitely showed up.
Even with all of the sensational sound work done in this film, I cannot reconcile how it makes the dialogue between the characters incomprehensible. When watching this in a theater, I could not understand much of what they were saying, which made the lack of characterization even more frustrating. Perhaps it came as a combination of both the accents and how the sound drowned out the characters. Watching it at home with subtitles displays the good information shared in these conversations but this flaw hampers the theater experience.
As a director, Christopher Nolan has received a blank check and he has utilized it to a wonderful degree with him releasing a war film in the middle of the summer. He sat back and decided to show off what he could achieve on a technical level with a war film. The British director certainly rose to the challenge and really crafted something spectacular to watch. Those impactful moments can be experienced by just listening or solely watching the visuals on display. An effort of mostly practical work, which only makes the achievement all the more impressive.
With no time for small talk and discussing what awaits them at home, Dunkirk proves to be a war film like no other. A thrilling experience from beginning to end, the narrative has one focus and it accomplishes just that. Subtitles may be necessary, but the emotional moments come through even with limited characterization given to the men followed in the story.