Dunkirk opens with a handful of British soldiers walking along an abandoned street. The men appear fairly unconcerned, and one of them even reaches through a kitchen window to scavenge a cigarette. But the neighborhood is eerily quiet, and the audience can feel a rising tension in the air.
And then it happens.
In just a few seconds’ time, invisible gunfire takes them over. Completely caught off guard, the soldiers scatter. Chaos ensues. Running from an enemy they cannot see, all but one of them is gunned down. The lone survivor barely escapes, only to find himself moments later on a beach with four hundred thousand other men who stand exposed to attack from the air. Almost immediately, the men hear the roar of the incoming Luftwaffe raid. German bombs rain down.
This opening sequence begins a relentless hour and a half. Adding to the tension and unease for much of the film is the sound of a ticking clock. It’s often overlapped with other sound effects, and it creates a sense that time is running out.
Dunkirk recounts the story of four hundred thousand French and British forces trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, France. The Germans have driven them to the sea and cornered them under heavy air attack. The time is May 1940, just one month before the Battle of Britain. The Royal Navy cannot send their destroyers for the rescue since they are needed back home in anticipation of a German invasion. At the same time, the British military needs at least 35,000 troops for the defense of the homeland. There’s only one way to get these men home. To paraphrase the movie’s tagline: home must come for them. Thus, a fleet of civilian boats enters the story.
The movie focuses on the trials of several players only: the steersman of one of the rescue boats (Mark Rylance), a private trying to get home (Fionn Whitehead), an RAF pilot (Tom Hardy), and the Naval captain behind the whole rescue plan (Kenneth Branagh). Still, none of the characters have much dialogue. Instead, director Christopher Nolan stores up emotional power behind each role and then, at the story’s peak, binds them all together for an extremely satisfying conclusion. There is probably not enough screen-time or dialogue for any of these actors to gain Oscar nominations this winter. Yet all of the acting is superb, and by the end each character has endeared himself to us.
Nolan shot the movie in 70mm, a widescreen camera format that increases the viewer’s ability to see detail. Nolan actually used IMAX cameras to shoot the picture, and one can see Dunkirk in 70mm, both through IMAX or screenings simply labeled 70mm. The director brings his distinctive style to this most recent film: reversed chronology, fast montages of action sequences, and the fantastic music of Hans Zimmer shine in Dunkirk. In one breathtaking sequence the camera crosscuts between two powerful images: a private being hauled onto one of the small rescue boats and soldiers desperately trying to flee an oil fire blazing on the water’s surface. The scene is scary, thrilling, and classic Christopher Nolan.
The aviation battles are some of the best ever done. By focusing on the pilot’s point of view, Nolan makes the audience feel as if we are in the cockpit.
Finally, Elgar’s soaring “Nimrod” from his Enigma Variations provides a moving conclusion to Zimmer’s soundtrack. This theme was a treasure of British culture. So was Elgar. Churchill even promoted his music during the war.
In the end, Dunkirk is a captivating war movie that inspires us and honors the brave men involved in the events it recalls. It is well-acted, well-directed, and definitely a must-see!
Jack Zwerneman writes on film for Cana Academy.