“You can practically see home from here.”
One beach, 400,000 men, a handful of ships, and a woefully short amount of time and resources. This is Dunkirk as presented by Christopher Nolan, still in full command of his craft and still with plenty to offer for his tenth feature film. Those without much knowledge of the great British/French loss to the overwhelming might and strategy of the German Wehrmacht are unlikely to learn much history from Nolan’s epic. There is no exposition, no historical framing, no old generals arguing troop movements across a tea-stained map in a smoky tactics room, indeed there is hardly any dialogue at all. Instead, we are treated to three overlapping stories of survival and valiance in a terrifying and tense situation, taking place over varying lengths of time. Nolan lets the action speak louder than any dialogue with a tense opening sequence that doesn’t let up the entire film. Each set piece ratchets up the tension and wrings as much stress as it can from the audience. Much like the non-stop action of Mad Max: Fury Road, Dunkirk leaves you exhausted when it finally loosens its grip at the end.
The three stories each show a different side of the action. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a soldier on the beach waiting for rescue, a civilian boat captain named Dawson (Mark Rylance) looking for survivors at sea, and Farrier (Tom Hardy), a pilot protecting the evacuating ships from the Luftwaffe and taking increasing risks with dwindling fuel. This is a true ensemble film with an extremely strong cast and the different time lengths are fun to try and puzzle together in your head as the film unfolds. The stories cross over at points as well, but each one stands completely on its own. Nolan’s decision to cut between them helps keep the narrative moving, but there is rarely any down time in any of the stories due to the ever-present possibility of enemy attack.
Nolan’s decision to frame the film only in the scope of the points of view of those directly involved in the rescue operation means the film is entirely driven by action. The German enemy is never seen, apart from a few bomber planes, but the pilots themselves are always faceless and the booms heard off in the distance are from some unseen army. This serves to create a blanket sense that the enemy is everywhere and can strike from any direction at any time, and it is strongly effective at instilling unsettling squirms in the audience. A sense of grimness pervades the film, and it is reflected in the faces of the cast and all the soldiers stuck waiting. It’s the less flashy side of war. This stripping down of the everyday depictions of war helps to center viewers on the constant state of unease that must have been felt by the soldiers stuck on that French beach. Aided by Hans Zimmer’s deeply unsettling soundtrack of whines, groans, and extended high-pitched warbles, Nolan achieves this in spades.
Dunkirk looks at what happens when there are no decisions left to make and no moves left to play, at how it frustrating and unnerving it feels to be boxed in when home is so close by.