If you’re only going to watch one war movie, this is the one to see. Focused on the evacuation of over 330,000 soldiers from the Dunkirk beaches in World War II, the movie Dunkirk brilliantly tells the story of what Winston Churchill aptly called “the miracle of Dunkirk”.
From the opening scene, Dunkirk is relentless, with a pounding soundtrack and both audio and visual effects that will leave viewers wide-eyed and caught up in the story. The immediacy of the battles, the stray bullets that whine out of nowhere, the scream of the fighters as they fly out of the sun for a strafing run, it’s masterful cinema. There’s so much to admire in the visuals too, including long, sweeping long shots inspired by David Lean and some of the best aerial combat scenes ever filmed.
The story is told as three parallel tales: a small British civilian boat dragooned into picking up isolated troops, a trio of British fighter pilots in their Spitfires heading to France to protect the ground troops from the Luftwaffe, and a group of British Army privates who are trying to get back to England however they can. Each is a fantastic story, gripping, exciting and provocative, but director Christopher Nolan masterfully weaves them together as the film unspools.
In the boat are the retired Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance in an Oscar-worthy performance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and young neighbor boy George (Barry Keoghan). En route from England they pick up a stranded RAF pilot (Cillian Murphy) who is clearly suffering from PTSD after having been shot down. But they don’t turn around, much to his distress, but continue onward to France. They’ve got a mission to do and it’s their duty to do it.
In the air, Farrier (Tom Hardy) is the lead pilot, with fellow Spitfire pilot Collins (Jack Lowden) as his mate as they fight and evade German planes, and try to shoot down a Nazi bomber before it can sink more of the Royal Navy ships. That the ships are on rescue missions means nothing to the Nazis; more than one Red Cross hospital ship is sunk in spectacular – and terrifying – fashion.
A quiet town on the western coast of France, Dunkirk is quiet as the grave, but on its beaches are miles of soldiers dutifully queuing up in the hope of being evacuated. The Germans haven’t missed an opportunity to remind them that they’re surrounded and are going to die or become prisoners of the Third Reich. All 400,000 of them. The opening scene has historically accurate fliers dropped from airplanes and wafting down gently to remind them of that dismal fact. There is no escape from Dunkirk.
On the ground are thousands upon thousands of soldiers, including British Army Privates Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles). Overseeing the evacuation is the stoic Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). He knows the bad news about the evacuation efforts that aren’t going at all well and English reticence about putting more naval vessels at risk to help out. Typically British, he keeps a stiff upper lip, assuring everyone that it’s all going to work out and to stay positive.
Miraculously and against all odds, it does turn out well because English civilian boaters cross the channel into enemy territory to rescue their boys. 900 ships rescued over 330,000 soldiers, including over 100,000 French soldiers (something that isn’t revealed in the movie).
The drama that takes place in Mr. Dawson’s tiny boat perfectly capture the madness and chaos of war, all the time also conveying a pervasive fear that never goes away. Will the boat sink? Will a U-boat get it? Will it be shot at from the sky? And yet, even against those odds and with no weapons whatsoever, they motor on, cross the famously rough channel, and make it to Dunkirk, to pick up far more men than the ship can hold and limp home.
War is a popular cinematic theme because it strips away the veneer of civilization and produces moments of raw emotion and action. Kill or be killed is all too present in the war, and World War II wasn’t fought with drones and robots, but with men in the trenches, rushing over the walls, and going door-to-door in the villages, at great cost in human life.
Nolan captures this terror extraordinarily well in this fantastic and intense movie. This is not an entertaining film, it has very little humor and few moments when the distant thumping of artillery shells and low hum of incoming fighters isn’t present, but in the very best tradition of great cinema, it’s a powerful movie that will leave you shaken and in awe of the historical events portrayed. It’s also unquestionably a shoe-in for Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
My recommendation: Go see it. But not with the younger ones. And be prepared for a cinematic experience that will leave you wondering what hit you. It’s truly filmmaking at its very best.