“Dunkirk” is a minimalist masterpiece from director Christopher Nolan
We enter the town of Dunkirk with a group of five young men who appear to be looking for any rations or materials of value left within the city. Pamphlets fall from the sky and inform those Allied forces still in the area that they’ve been surrounded, and the only choice is to surrender or die. This gripping reimagining of one of the darkest-turned-brightest moments of World War II is not only on par with Christopher Nolan’s previous work but stands out as a truly magnificent and unique war epic.
In many respects, “Dunkirk” plays more like a silent thriller. Trapped on the French beach, more than 400,000 British and French soldiers wait to be rescued as German forces continue to march toward them while their planes fly overhead dropping bombs on the defenseless Allies. There is no more running, and there is no last stand.
Nolan, a fan of twisty narratives that play with the concept of time, sets “Dunkirk” across three distinct locations and storylines. “The Mole,” for the soldiers stuck on the beach, set over a period of one week. “The Sea,” with characters racing toward the beach to lend assistance, taking place over one day. And then “The Air,” with two Spitfire pilots cruising the sky over a timeline of an hour.
Boasting an incredible cast, Nolan allows his characters to internalize their fears and emotions. As Tommy, Fionn Whitehead makes an astounding mark in his feature film debut. With no true lead in the movie, Tommy’s point of view is often the crutch for the audience to rest upon. It is gripping from its opening moments, in which we see the soldiers getting picked off by invisible snipers in the middle of the titular town.
Where the character of Tommy really shines is when he’s doing all that he can to figure out a way off the beach. This potential act of desertion isn’t seen as a war crime, but as a young man doing everything he can to live until tomorrow. War is scary, and the fact that teenagers are often the ones in the thick of it adds a sense of tension otherwise missed in traditional war films.
Perhaps what makes this movie uniquely incredible is exactly what some folks will see as a negative. The lack of exposition and any meaningful dialogue is shocking in this already short film. Most lines are delivered when mouths are covered, food is being eaten or rising water levels impede easy elocution. But this seems at home during war. While this approach can make it difficult to get to know characters, it does do well to capture the feeling of war.
Of all three perspectives, the civilians who journeyed from Britain with their personal vessels to get soldiers off the Dunkirk beaches is the most inspiring. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) along with his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and son’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) make their way to France to aid in any way they can. Along the way, they pick up a shell-shocked and shivering soldier (Cillian Murphy) involved in a U-boat attack. Scared to death of returning to the beach he just escaped from, the solider lashes out on his would-be saviors with dire consequences that are decidedly best left unmentioned.
This is an extraordinary film of a moment that was far from the military’s finest hour, though the soldiers are the first to admit that: “All we did was survive.” It’s a tremendously patriotic film about the courage, not just of the soldiers, but of the civilians who selflessly took their own boats across the channel to rescue troops. ♦